Probiotic supplements are everywhere these days, and they come with some pretty hefty health claims. Are these claims too good to be true? Will any old probiotic do? Do I need to give my baby a probiotic?
Researchers have found over 50 different strains of bacteria in the gut microbiome, and it is becoming apparent that each strain may offer you a different health benefit (1). Whilst there is a lot of promising evidence for probiotic supplements, some of the findings are less solid than certain industries would like you to believe (1). There are, however, some bacterial groups, such as Bifidobacteria, that have gained enough clinical evidence for certain health benefits, that they might just live up to the hype (1).
Bifidobacteria and the Microbiome
Bifidobacteria is recognised as one of the most important groups of bacteria in our gut, even though it typically only makes up about 2-14% of all the bacteria in an adult’s gut microbiome (2). In contrast, a healthy, breastfed baby’s gut is made up of mostly Bifidobacteria, hinting at the important role this bacteria plays in early development and health (3).
Bifidobacteria and Infants
In the haze of those newborn days, filled with nappies, sleepless nights, and milky cuddles, it’s easy to forget the incredible transformation and development that is occurring in your bub. Those first 4 months of life are particularly important for immune system development, and the abundance of Bifidobacteria in your infant’s gut during this time can really influence this process (4, 5). On top of this, Bifidobacteria plays a role in the development of your baby’s gut microbiome, and their ability to fight future disease (4). As you can see, Bifidobacteria is a bacterial group worth promoting, but how can we help it (and our babies!) thrive?
Birth, Breastfeeding and Bifidobacteria
Not everyone has the option to choose a vaginal birth, but, if you can, it’s a good first step towards promoting an abundance of Bifidobacteria in your bub’s gut (4). Baby’s who are born vaginally typically end up hosting more of the beneficial bacteria groups, like Bifidobacteria, than those born via C-section (4).
Breastfeeding, if possible, is another way to increase the bounty of Bifidobacteria in bub’s gut during those first important months of life (6). Breastfeeding for even just one month has been shown to increase the rate of appearance of Bifidobacteria (4) This breastmilk-derived Bifidobacterium helps produce a sort of ‘by-product’ called aromatic lactic acid, which also contributes to immune function in early life, as well as helping to maintain ‘homeostasis’- the body’s internal, balancing, self-regulation system (6).
Should I Give My Baby a Supplement?
There is still a lot to be learnt in terms of specific strains within the Bifidobacterium group, but in some situations, a supplement might be worth looking into. Some studies suggest that early supplementation with Bifidobacteria may help to reduce inflammation (5). In one study, babies given Bifidobacteria supplements were more able to break down the sugars (HMOs) in breastmilk, and also displayed less signs of inflammation (5). According to current evidence, babies who are born via C-section, prematurely, or who are not breastfed, may benefit from a Bifidobacteria supplement in the first few months of life, but, as always, this is something that should be discussed with your healthcare professional (3).
Keywords: Probiotics, immunity, supplementation, pregnancy, disease, Bifidobacteria, breastfeeding
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