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Live Cultures for Kids: A Complete Evidence-Based Guide for Parents

Children spending time outdoors

In this article, we are going to discuss live cultures for kids – how do they work and what are the different live culture strains. Also, we are going to go over what you need to about your child’s immune system and digestive health. Please consider your doctor’s advice before you decide to give your kids live cultures. Use our research and fact-checked advice only as a guide, and talk to your paediatrician before you do any action.

Kids and the Immune System

The first 1000 days of life – from preconception to their second birthday – are an important period in your child’s immune system journey. Being exposed to new bacteria and viruses for the first time, and generating their first antibodies to fight them, at this age is essential to immunity development, an important basis for the healthy future of your child.

Mothers pass on antibodies to their children’s so-called “nest protection”, giving them their first barriers of defence, but this alone isn’t enough.

The immunity that a child inherits passively from their mother gradually decreases within the first few months of their life, so it’s important to foster an environment that encourages the development of a strong immune system from a young age.

Children tend to contract 5-10 colds or flu a year because they are being exposed to pathogens for the first time, and with limited defences, contrasting with adults, who catch 2-4 colds per year, which shows how effective the immune system becomes at fighting back.

In addition, children with siblings and children who attend daycare centres are at a higher risk of contracting an illness. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, sharing these germs helps train the immature immune system to fight future, and potentially more serious, illnesses.

Gut Microbiome

The human gut has trillions of bacteria, and the collection of bacteria in the body is referred to as the “microbiome” (1). Microbiomes are present in several areas of the body, but the gut microbiome is the most important to consider in terms of overall health and brain function.

Balance is very important, as we need the right types of bacteria present in the right amounts for the brain and body to function optimally. Ideally, there should be more good bacteria than bad bacteria present.

When the balance of bacteria is disrupted in a negative way it is called “dysbiosis”, and gut dysbiosis can contribute to many different health problems and symptoms for adults and kids.

The balance of gastrointestinal flora plays a large role in kids’ immune function. Research shows that up to 80% of a child’s immune system resides in his/her gut, it’s clear that immunity and the gut microbiome are tightly linked (2). Microbiomes are in constant contact with the immune system, and they can influence the immune function.

Promoting healthy intestinal flora strengthens your child’s natural defences. Developing a tolerance to good bacteria in the gut is important as a type of maintenance for the immune system, too, and to make sure it’s ready for facing off other unwelcome pathogens.

What Can You Do To Improve Your Child’s Immune System?

In addition to balanced gut flora, you can help up-skill your child’s immune system, particularly in the first 1000 days, by:

  • Regular exercise, preferably in the fresh air and even in winter or in bad weather
  • Sufficient sleep and rest, avoiding stress and noise
  • Avoid extreme hygiene — natural contact with germs in the environment promotes a strong immune system
  • Vaccinations (as recommended for children in the first year of life)
  • Good nutrition

Mom and son spending time outside is a healthy way of building child's immune system

The Kids’ Gut Health – It All Starts With Mom

Your child is born with a unique set of gut flora, their “personal microbiome”. The quality and diversity of the bacteria, both “good” or beneficial and less-than-beneficial or “bad,” are largely determined by mom’s microflora. Your child’s gut microbiome begins to develop in the womb, is further populated during birth and through breastfeeding, and undergoes critical stages of development in infancy and early childhood (3).

Scientists have found that giving foetuses an early start on gut health and exposing them to various live culture strains while they’re developing leads to stronger immune systems, digestive advantages, and other benefits at birth and beyond (4).

What Happens at Birth?

During birth, babies are exposed to even more of their mothers’ live culture bacteria as they travel through the birth canal, hence, intestinal microbiomes of babies delivered vaginally tend to show similarities with the mother’s vaginal microbiota; babies delivered via caesarean section do not pass through the birth canal, and are not exposed to the body’s natural method of transferring healthy bacteria from the mother to the baby (5). Consequently, babies delivered via caesarean section typically experience a lower abundance and diversity of intestinal bacteria (6,7). In other words, a greater chance of dysbiosis.

Mom, Dad and the Baby

A mom’s gut flora is influenced by many factors, including the father’s microbiome. Either parent’s gut flora can be adversely affected by a number of things, such as processed or sugary foods, processed foods with bioengineered ingredients, pollution, antibiotics, over-the-counter heartburn pills, pesticides in foods, chlorinated and fluoridated water, and even stress.

To insure giving your baby a healthy, diversified microbiome, consider the health of your own gut flora first and encourage your spouse or partner to do the same. One simple step you can take is to introduce fermented vegetables into your daily diet. Eating a serving or more of properly prepared fermented vegetables offers important benefits for your gut flora and for that of your unborn child.

Another powerful way to help restore your own beneficial gut flora is consuming raw organic grass-fed yogurt (not commercial yogurt from the grocery store, which is pasteurized and can contain high amounts of sugar). Ideally, make your yogurt at home with raw organic milk.

The easiest, and perhaps most reliable, way to maximize your beneficial gut microbes is to take a daily high-quality live culture supplement. Adult’s and Women’s ‘live cultures & fibre’ supplements are recommended for most individuals, especially soon-to-be parents.

Live cultures for kids can come in a form of tablet, pill or chewable tablet

Live Cultures for Kids – What Are They and How Do They Work?

What Are Live Cultures?

Live cultures are “live microorganisms that offer health benefits by helping enhance or restore health to the gut microbiome”, as per the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.

Many dietary fibres found in high-fibre foods aren’t broken down by human digestive enzymes and make it to the large intestine where they’re fermented by gut bacteria.

Do Kids Really Need Live Cultures?

A balanced gut microbiome can boost your baby’s immune system and improve the function of a number of related bodily processes.
Live cultures are a popular natural remedy for kids. According to the “2012 National Health Interview Survey”, live cultures are the 3rd natural product most used by children (8).

A study published in ‘JAMA Paediatrics’ found that giving infants live cultures in the first three months of life may help prevent gas, colic, constipation, and acid reflux (9).

Some research also suggests that live cultures may help relieve acute constipation, colic, and acid reflux in healthy infants and children. They may also help prevent secondary infections and diarrhoea in kids using live cultures. It may even help prevent eczema and allergies in some children.

Kids’ Unbalanced Gut Microbiome – Causes & Effects

In addition to caesarean delivery, many other factors, including: formula-feeding, preterm birth, and early exposure to antibiotics and antibacterial products can also imbalance or disrupt babies gut microbiome, and place them at increased risk of dysbiosis, allergies, common infections, and paediatric illnesses (5,10).

Antibiotics

Antibiotic use is one of the most common causes of an out-of-balance microbiome. While antibiotics are important for preventing serious infections by killing off bad strains of bacteria, they operate non selectively, thus, important beneficial bacteria are targeted alongside the detrimental strains.

A full 33% of US births are C-sections, which can negatively impact the baby’s balance of good bacteria (11). Many expectant moms are dosed with antibiotics while in the delivery room, which can knock a baby’s microbiome out of whack.

Moreover, kids before the age of four (just as their tiny bodies start building a good gut-health foundation) receive more antibiotics than any other age group (12).

If antibiotics are a must for your sick child, better microbiome health could mean fewer rounds of the drug will be needed to get them healthy again (13). Preemies given live cultures cry less (14).

Playing outside and being exposed to the right types of good bacteria in their early years can help child's immune system

Antibacterial Products – “Hygiene Hypothesis”

The use of antibacterial products can have a similar effect to antibiotics, killing good bacteria along with bad.

Indeed, a growing number of researchers support the “hygiene hypothesis” (15).

This theory assumes that environmental and lifestyle changes that affect children in developed countries such as improved sanitation, reduced exposure to farm animals and increased C-section rates has led to children not being exposed to enough of the right types of good bacteria in their early years, with potentially significant health consequences.

So, What Can The Effects Be If Your Child’s Gut Microbiome Is Unbalanced?

Some symptoms are relatively minor yet disruptive, including digestive issues like constipation and diarrhoea.

However, several serious and life-long conditions that commonly onset during childhood such as asthma, allergies, autoimmune diseases, and Type-1 diabetes have been linked to an unbalanced gut microbiome and a lack of exposure to adequate sources of good bacteria in childhood.

Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Live Cultures for Kids in Infants and Young Children

A growing amount of literature finds that live cultures represent a safe and effective way to support a healthy gut microbiota during early development.

Below we provide some notable research findings from clinical studies conducted with infants and young children. Altogether, these studies show that regularly incorporating live culture foods or supplements into a child’s diet can:

  • Decrease the need for antibiotic treatments in children attending daycare (16)
  • Promote a healthy immune response in babies delivered via caesarean section (17)
  • Meliorate symptoms of antibiotic-associated gastrointestinal distress (18)
  • Support the immune health of infants at “high risk” for allergies and skin dysfunctions (19)
  • Promote overall gastrointestinal health and function (20)
  • Reduce crying time and other symptoms related to colic (21)
  • Decrease hospital-acquired or healthcare-associated diarrhoea (22-24)
  • Influences the child’s metabolism and weight by promoting the growth and survival of good, beneficial bacteria. Having a healthy amount of gut microbes may be important for your child’s weight management throughout life, according to research (25)
  • May help reduce potential adverse side effects from childhood vaccinations (26)
  • Supports brain health during growth and development. Because there’s a close connection between your child’s gut and brain, the gut is often called the “second brain” (27)
  • Helps digest food and produce certain nutrients that your child’s body needs (28)
  • Helps support urinary tract health and vaginal health (in girls) by helping to maintain healthy bacteria populations (29)

This is why many parents today are turning to high-quality live cultures supplements for kids. While cultivation of gut bacteria starts at birth, it’s vital that they can flourish as your child grows.

Happy child playing with toys

Are Live Cultures for Kids Safe?

Studies show that live cultures are generally safe for most children, with several possible exceptions including preterm infants, children with compromised immune systems, and children using intravenous medical devices (30,31).

However, even if your child is healthy enough to take live cultures, it is advisable to speak to your child’s paediatrician about whether they are a suitable candidate before exposing them to either foods or supplements (32).

Live Cultures for Kids Supplements vs. Live Culture Foods: Which Is Better?

Live cultures are added to some foods like yogurt and cultured cottage cheese. They are naturally occurring in fermented foods like buttermilk and raw cheese made from unpasteurized milk.

Some experts support the health benefits of raw milk and products made from raw milk, but it shouldn’t be given to children. Raw milk may contain dangerous bacteria. It can cause life-threatening illness.

If you’re wondering if live culture supplements or foods are better, the answer isn’t clear-cut.

Nutrition Is the Key, But…

Getting nutrients from whole foods is usually best. But in the case of live cultures, your child may not be able to get enough from food alone.

Live cultures in foods may not survive the manufacturing and storage processes. In the absence of clinical trials comparing equal doses of the same strains from each delivery method, it’s a difficult question to answer. Unless you have a lab in your kitchen, there’s no way of knowing exactly how much made it out alive.

Acquiring enough live cultured bacteria to make an impact on gut health may be less challenging with supplements than food sources, particularly for young children who eat fewer foods, and less of live cultures. Ultimately, whether and how you decide to incorporate live cultures into your child’s diet should be decided during a conversation with their pediatrician.