Most of us understand that there are 'bad' bacteria and 'good'
bacteria. The bad bacteria are the ones that can make little ones
sick with tummy bugs or throat infections. The good bacteria, more
accurately described as 'probiotics', are essential for the healthy
functioning of growing bodies.
What are probiotics?
"Probiotics are the 'friendly' bacteria that normally live in
our intestines," explains Dr Susan Prescott, an internationally
renowned specialist in childhood allergy and immunology and author
ofThe Allergy Epidemic. "As babies, they are very important for the
normal development of our gut, our immune systems and even our
metabolism. They help defend us from infections by harmful
bacteria, and even help control our patterns of weight gain."
Where do probiotics come from?
Probiotics are present in breastmilk and quickly enter the
baby's intestines after birth. Also present in breastmilk are
'prebiotics, a form of soluble dietary fibre that promotes the
growth of probiotics. The way to keep up a healthy population of
probiotics once breastfeeding has finished is to establish a
healthy, balanced diet, says Dr Prescott.
"Ultimately, that is better than using supplements," she says.
"And you should include a healthy amount of dietary fibre, too,
because that will naturally promote the growth of friendly
What about probiotic supplements?
In a perfect world, a well-rounded diet would ensure that your
toddler has plenty of probiotics. However, if your family diet has
veered off course, or if your little one's natural probiotic
population has taken a beating from a course of antibiotics (which
kill 'good' bacteria just as readily as the 'bad' bacteria causing
an illness), you may want to bump up the probiotic intake.
"Some fermented foods, such as yoghurts, contain live probiotics
cultures," says Dr Prescott. "However the amounts of live
probiotics bacteria vary widely between products."
Probiotic supplements are quite safe for toddlers although you
should speak to a pharmacist or doctor for advice on exactly which
product to use. The issue is that there are many different strains
of probiotics and, says Dr Prescott, the health effects vary
according to the strain.
What will probiotics do for my toddler?
The pattern of bacteria in the body varies according to the
environment and, as Dr Prescott explains, there is some evidence
that 'cleaner' modern environments are changing the natural
probiotic balance, which could possibly be a factor in the rising
rates of allergic diseases.
There is also some evidence that probiotics can help with the
diarrhoea that comes along with an acute bout of gastro, or
sometimes follows a course of antibiotics.
"A course of probiotics during or after a course of antibiotics
may help restore the natural balance of bacteria in the intestinal
tract and is unlikely to cause significant side effects," says Dr
Prescott, adding that further studies are needed to determine the
best bacteria strain, dose and duration for such a treatment.
A number of studies also suggest that taking probiotics early in
life may help to prevent the onset of eczema, and may help to
alleviate the symptoms of established eczema.
The Allergy Epidemicby Dr Susan Prescott is published by UWA
Publishing. All author's proceeds go directly to allergy research.