In 2008, the 6th Meeting of the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) defined “dietary prebiotics” as “a selectively fermented ingredient that results in specific changes in the composition and/or activity of the gastrointestinal microbiota, thus conferring benefit(s) upon host health” (1).
Prebiotics are thus consumed for the benefit of the gut microbiota, which in turn work to benefit the human body. But do babies need prebiotics? In this MomJunction post, we provide information about the benefits, safety, and food sources of prebiotics for babies.
Difference Between Prebiotics And Probiotics For Babies
Prebiotics are often confused with probiotics. There are differences in them though, that can be best understood through their definitions provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics (2).
Probiotics are food or food supplements that contain viable/live good bacteria that cause alterations in the bacterial colonies of the host’s intestines. These bacteria keep the gut healthy.
Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the favorable growth and activity of one or more probiotic bacteria present in the gut.
Therefore, probiotics are food matter that provide the body with good bacteria, while prebiotics work as ‘food’ for the gut bacteria itself. Healthy gut flora leads to their adequate population, which in turn keeps the digestive system functioning well.
Are Prebiotics Safe For Babies?
Prebiotic compounds found in breast milk and prebiotic infant formula are safe for infants. However, it is not known if prebiotic supplements are safe for babies. Vegetables, fruits, and grains naturally contain prebiotics, but these cannot be fed to babies younger than six months. Never feed the baby any prebiotic supplements without consulting a pediatrician.
Do Babies Need Prebiotics?
It is not entirely known if babies need prebiotics. If your baby is fed on breast milk, then they can safely get the prebiotics from it. If your baby is on a formula diet, then you will have to speak to your doctor about introducing a prebiotic infant formula since standard infant formula may contain little or no prebiotics.
A study noted that babies who were fed prebiotic infant formula had gut microbiota similar to breastfed infants and showed better stool consistency (3). However, it is not known if prebiotic infant formula-fed infants have an advantage over standard infant formula-fed babies in the long term. Speak to your doctor about the pros and cons of prebiotic infant formula for your baby.
What Are Different Types Of Prebiotics?
There are several types of prebiotics. The majority of the prebiotics are a subset of carbohydrate group called oligosaccharide. The following are the different variations of oligosaccharides that work as prebiotics (1) (4).
- Galactooligosaccharides: It comes from the sugar called galactose, which is commonly found in milk, including human milk, and milk products like yogurt, etc.
- Fructans: This category consists of inulin and fructo-oligosaccharide. Inulin is generally found in root vegetables. Fructose is found in several fruits and vegetables.
- Starch and glucose-derived oligosaccharides: These often result from the breakdown of large molecules of starch and glucose. Starch is commonly found in grains, while glucose is found in a variety of fruits and vegetables.
What Are The Benefits Of Prebiotics For Babies?
Prebiotics are considered functional foods because they provide health benefits that go beyond basic nutrition (5).
A few not very conclusive studies, prove the efficacy of prebiotics in managing the following conditions in babies:
- Strengthening the immune system
- Atopic eczema
- Recurrent wheezing
- Allergic urticaria
- Allergic dermatitis
- Chronic ulcerative colitis
Enriching the baby’s formula with prebiotics is also said to lower the pH of stool and aid in improving the consistency of stool (3). Prebiotics might lead to an overall improvement in the population of the gut microbiota.
Food Sources That Contain Prebiotics For Babies
- Human milk and prebiotic infant formula – only source of prebiotics for babies younger than six months
- Chicory root
- Palm fruit
- Young coconut
The presence of natural prebiotics in human milk is often the motivation for introducing supplemental prebiotics in the baby’s food (2). A wide variety of foods contain prebiotics. Giving your baby a healthy diet of solids after the age of six months and continuing to breastfeed can provide them with sufficient prebiotics. If you want to separately add prebiotics, then speak to the baby’s doctor before adding any supplements in the little one’s diet.
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