Parents have been asking me to digest information they’re hearing about something called probiotics and whether they are safe for children.  Well, let me see if I can provide some food for thought on this topic. 

While some bacteria in our system are dangerous and cause us to get sick, there are other good or friendly bacteria that work in our digestive tract to help us stay healthy.  Because they work in favor of good health we call them probiotics.  These bacteria make substances that keep the cells in the intestines healthy, and fight off unfriendly bacteria, yeast and molds.  Some of the more common names for these bacteria are bifid bacterium and lactobacillus – organisms that you commonly find in foods such as yogurt.

It’s important to note that when your child takes an antibiotic to kill bad bacteria, often the good ones are killed as well.  So when your child is being treated for an infection, you should consider having them eat foods that contain probiotics to reconstitute the good bacteria back into their digestive systems.

When they colonize or settle into a baby or child’s digestive system, probiotics help to do such things as reduce the risk of diarrhea due to stomach viruses, lower the risk of food allergy and help premature infants grow and stay healthy. They have been reported to help with everything from diarrhea to eczema to food allergies. Some studies published recently suggest that probiotics can even reduce the incidence of the common cold or flu symptoms.

So, are they safe?  They appear to be, when taken as recommended by your child’s doctor or a nutritionist.  The only side effects reported include mild gas and bloating, and this happens largely in adults. However, since they are regulated as food products and not as drugs, there is limited specific data about what types or doses work best in children and adults. My advice is to recognize that we all have probiotics working within us naturally since birth when they settle in with simple breast milk or formula use, and the need to add more may not be worth the expense since more may not necessarily be better.  

Hopefully tips like this will help you sort out the pros and recognize the unknown cons of considering adding probiotics to your child’s diet. 

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children’s Hospital at the University of Vermont Medical Center and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and on WCAX-TV Channel 3. Visit the First with Kids video archives at


Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.

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