Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when taken in adequate amounts, can offer health benefits. This definition, officially established by the World Health Organization, underscores the importance of probiotics for our health. Probiotics are primarily found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut, but can also be taken as dietary supplements.

Why are probiotics important?

Probiotics play a key role in our digestive system. They help balance the microbiome, support digestion, contribute to the production of important vitamins, and strengthen our immune system. A healthy microbiome, promoted by probiotics, is crucial for overall health and can even positively affect mental health.

The importance of probiotics for infants

Probiotics are especially important for infants, as the microbiome is established in the first months of life. This microbiome significantly influences the development of the immune system and the digestive health of the child. In the microbiome of healthy infants, bacteria of the genus Bifidobacterium are predominantly found, which are associated with numerous positive health effects. However, various factors can impair the presence of Bifidobacteria:

  • Cesarean section: Already at birth, the baby is exposed to the mother's microorganisms, laying the foundation for its own microbiome. In cesarean births, the transfer of maternal intestinal bacteria to the baby does not take place, often resulting in a lack of important intestinal bacteria.
  • Breastfeeding: Breast milk is a natural source of probiotics and prebiotic substances, called Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMO) that promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the baby's intestine. In non-breastfed babies, there is usually significantly less Bifidobacterium in the microbiome.
  • Antibiotics: These drugs not only destroy pathogenic germs but also beneficial intestinal bacteria like Bifidobacterium. This can negatively affect the microbiome, as unfavorable bacteria often survive better.

Supplements for infants

If Bifidobacteria are missing in the microbiome of infants due to these factors, targeted supplementation with baby probiotics can be sensible. Three effects are particularly relevant:

  1. Initial colonization: If Bifidobacteria are missing in the intestine of an infant, probiotics are crucial for the initial colonization. They initiate the development of a healthy microbiome, which is important for the development of the immune system and efficient digestion.
  2. Diversification: If the microbiome of an infant contains Bifidobacteria, but not in an optimal variety or composition, probiotics can contribute to diversification. Different strains of Bifidobacteria enrich the microbiome, supporting the baby's digestion and immune system.
  3. Temporary effect: Probiotics can also offer short-term, but significant benefits. They support digestion and help with issues like diarrhea or bloating. This also applies to other bacterial genera that do not permanently settle in the intestine, such as Lactobacilli.

Differences to adult probiotics

Baby probiotics are unique in their ability to sustainably change the microbiome. This is different in adults.

Probiotic dietary supplements originally come from fermented foods and mainly contain bacteria of the genera Lactobacillus (and similar, like Lacticaseibacillus) and Bifidobacterium. The safety and compatibility of these bacteria have been confirmed over decades, which is why they are now available as dietary supplements.

In adults, however, hundreds of other bacterial species also play an important role, which are not available as dietary supplements, making it generally not possible to sustainably change their microbial balance.

Choosing probiotics for infants

When choosing probiotics for infants, selecting specific bacterial species is crucial. Important criteria are:

  1. The product should contain Bifidobacterium.
  2. It should include various types of Bifidobacterium.
  3. Ideal are the species B. infantis, B. breve, B. longum, and B. bifidum, which show effective HMO metabolism.
  4. The form of administration should ideally be as drops, especially for exclusively breastfed babies.
  5. A low number of colony-forming units (CFU), about 300 million (3*10^8), is sufficient to not overload the microbiome, unlike higher-dosed adult probiotics.