Whether weeknight dinners have started to feel more like a stand-off at high noon (will your 5-year-old finally eat his broccoli?) or your child recently recovered from the tummy flu and a bout of antibiotics, you’re concerned about his gut health. Are probiotics for kids the answer? Are they safe? We asked pediatrician and surgeon Jacqueline Jones, M.D. and author of Medical Parenting: How to Navigate the Health, Wellness & Medical System with Your Child, for her opinion. Here’s what she told us.
First off, what even is a probiotic?
Probiotics are the naturally occurring microbes that live in our guts. When they become outnumbered by bad bacteria—thanks to a poor diet or an antibiotic—your kid can experience a whole plethora of negative side effects, like a chronically upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea and heartburn. “Probiotic supplements help restore this balance and support the good bacteria in the gut that keep the GI tract healthy,” Dr. Jones says.
Why would a child need to take probiotics?
Kids can have this balance of good and bad bacteria thrown out of whack in their systems when they’re on antibiotics or if they don’t eat plenty of whole fruits and vegetables and gut-healthy foods, like yogurt, sourdough bread and fermented vegetables like pickles and kimchi. “But these aren’t exactly kid-friendly foods,” Dr. Jones says. So, it’s normal to get an “Are you kidding me?” look from them if you plop a plate full of kale and sauerkraut in front of them. To make up for this lack of good gut bacteria, your child’s pediatrician might recommend a probiotic supplement.
But are probiotics for kids safe?
In short, yes, they can be! There are many different types of probiotics on the market—enough to make your head spin. Some of them are specifically formulated to be gentle on a child’s more sensitive stomach (and picky palates). “Probiotics are wonderful additions to help support a healthy immune system, and different strains of probiotics will help with different health conditions and situations,” informs Dr. Jones. If your child is taking an antibiotic, for instance, she’s going to need more good bacteria in her system because antibiotics wipe them out. The best probiotic for this case is Saccharomyces boulardii, which you can find in a supplement called Florastor for kids. “It’s a commercially available product that comes in a good-tasting powder that dissolves easily in water,” Dr. Jones assures us, so you don’t have to worry about getting that look from your kids again.
How do you pick out a good probiotic?
Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, meaning the quantity and quality of each is not guaranteed—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great products out there. The best way to make sure you’re giving your child a quality probiotic is to ask their pediatrician for more recommendations of what they think is best, advises Dr. Jones.
When choosing a probiotic supplement to help with overall gut health, Dr. Jones recommends three things in particular.
“Parents need to make sure there’s a good variety of microorganisms in the supplement they’re buying so their kids can reap the full benefits of a healthy, balanced gut, but the key bacteria that needs to be in the mix is lactobacillus,” Dr. Jones says. Lactobacillus is the OG probiotic because it produces lactic acid, which prevents harmful bacteria from building up in the intestines and causing a whole mess of health problems.
2. NIH-backed conclusions
Supplements make all kinds of wild promises about what they can do for you, but most of them aren’t backed by science. To weed out the duds, Dr. Jones urges us to verify these claims instead of blindly trusting them. The best way to do this is to visit the NIH website, where the U.S. Department of Health and Human services has listed everything probiotics can actually do—like help with diarrhea, constipation and symptoms of IBS and IBD.
3. A Made-in-the-U.S.A. seal
While you’re scanning the packaging for ingredients, look for a seal that says the product was made in America. Dr. Jones says she wouldn’t recommend (or take) a supplement not made stateside because “not all countries have very high standards for factories and manufacturing plants.”
What are the downsides to giving a child a probiotic?
Unlike some of those commercials for new drugs that have a laundry list of scary side effects recited at warp speed, probiotics are quite safe. Per Dr. Jones: “For the vast majority of children, probiotics are safe and, in most cases, effective. Some children and adults may experience bloating or gas with the use of probiotics, but if this occurs, try an every-other-day approach until your child's body becomes better accustomed to the change in gut flora that the probiotic will bring on.”
Bottom line? A little probiotic can go a long way if your child needs some gut health help, and with some close reading, you’ll find the right one. Don’t trust yourself (and medical professionals on the internet)? That’s what your pediatrician is for. Hit her up for the best recommendation your copay can buy.