Probiotics (meaning “for life”) are microorganisms that may help with digestion and offer protection from harmful bacteria just as the existing “good” bacteria in your body already does. The most common types of probiotics are strains of tiny organisms called bifidobacterium and lactobacillus. Some formulas are fortified with probiotics, which are live bacteria. They are “good” or “friendly” bacteria that are already present at high levels in the digestive system of breast-fed babies.

Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates that act as food for the probiotics. Prebiotics are found in whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, honey and artichokes.

When probiotics and prebiotics are combined they are called synbiotics. Yogurt is an example of synbiotics, which contains the live bacteria and the fuel they need to survive.

Some research has shown that the probiotics mentioned above may prevent or treat disorders such as infectious diarrhea and atopic dermatitis (eczema) in children. They have been shown to help treat diarrhea after treatment with certain antibiotics. In formula fed babies, the introduction of probiotics is designed to promote a balance of bacteria in your baby’s intestines and offset the growth of “unfriendly” organisms that could cause infections and inflammation. Other possible health benefits are being studied as well, including whether probiotics can lower your child’s risk of food-related allergies and asthma, prevent urinary tract infections or improve the symptoms of infant colic.

Side effects are rare. With many of these health conditions, the evidence confirming any positive effects of probiotic use is limited and more research is needed. At this time, any benefits appear to occur only as long as the probiotics are being taken. Once your baby stops consuming probiotic-fortified formula, the bacteria in the intestines will return to their previous levels.

Before giving your child infant formula that is fortified with probiotics, discuss the issue with your health care provider. Unless there is a specific problem being treated it is best to obtain your probiotics and prebiotics through healthy eating.
Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.