Applied Evidence

When can infants and children benefit from probiotics?

Author and Disclosure Information

The latest studies indicate that probiotics can help with colic, eczema, and certain types of diarrhea. They may also help with upper respiratory infections and IBS pain.




› Recommend a trial of Lactobacillus reuteri for breastfed infants with colic. A
› Consider Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species for the prevention of upper respiratory infections (URIs) and to shorten the course of URI illness. B
› Do not recommend probiotics for the prevention of respiratory or gastrointestinal allergies. A
› Consider probiotics for the reduction of abdominal pain in pediatric irritable bowel syndrome, as well as to reduce diarrhea associated with antibiotic use and acute gastroenteritis. A

Strength of recommendation (SOR)

A Good-quality patient-oriented evidence
B Inconsistent or limited-quality patient-oriented evidence
C Consensus, usual practice, opinion, disease-oriented evidence, case series

CASE Ms. B, a 26-year-old woman, presents to your office with her 3-year-old son for a well-child examination. During the course of the conversation, she asks you if she should be giving her child probiotics to improve his general health. Many of her friends, who also have their children in day care, have told her that probiotics, “are nature’s way of fighting infection.” Her son currently takes no medications, and has no history of asthma or recent gastrointestinal disturbances. He was treated for 2 ear infections last winter, approximately 3 months apart. His physical exam is normal and, after today, his immunizations will be up to date. How should you respond?

The use of probiotics as over-the-counter treatments for a variety of conditions continues to grow, with retail sales of functional probiotic foods and supplements topping $35 billion worldwide in 2014.1 In children, claims of benefit for gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, colic, and allergy prevention, as well as prevention and treatment of upper respiratory infections (URIs) have existed for over 10 years.2-4 The human gut flora develops rapidly after birth and is known to be influenced by route of delivery (vaginal vs cesarean), type of feeding (breast vs formula), and other environmental factors.5 The use of probiotics to influence the types of bacteria in a child’s intestinal tract continues to be an area of active research. (For more on probiotic formulations, see TABLE 1.)

Common probiotic products for infants and children image

This article summarizes recent research on probiotic use in infants and children. New data support the use of probiotics for the treatment of colic and atopic eczema; however, the data on using probiotics in the management of URIs is less robust and mixed. And while probiotics improve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) stomach pain, they do not help with related diarrhea or constipation. All of these data are summarized in TABLE 2.6-29

What the evidence tells us about probiotic use for these conditions in children image

L reuteri improves symptoms in breastfed infants with colic

Infant colic is a relatively common condition known to negatively impact maternal mental health and the mother/child relationship.6 Numerous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) over the years have demonstrated mixed results with using probiotics to decrease crying times, with differences noted between infants who are solely breastfed and those who are not.7

In the most recent meta-analysis of 6 studies (n=427) that focused only on the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri, breastfed infants with colic receiving a daily dose of 108 colony forming units (CFU) cried an average of 56 fewer minutes/day than those in the control group (95% confidence interval [CI], -64.4 to -47.3; P=.001) at day 21 of treatment.8 Although 2 studies in this meta-analysis included a small number of mixed-fed and formula-fed infants, the majority of trials do not show benefit for these infants. Trials assessing the use of L reuteri for prevention of colic have not shown positive results.7

Probiotics may help prevent and shorten the course of URIs

The mechanisms by which probiotics may prevent or shorten the course of URIs are not obvious. Current theories include boosting the immune function of the respiratory mucosa, acting as a competitive inhibitor for viruses, and secreting antiviral compounds.9 Multiple reviews published in the last 3 years, however, add to the evidence that the apparent benefit is real.

A 2013 meta-analysis assessed data from 4 RCTs (N=1805), which used Lactobacillus rhamnosus as the sole probiotic for prevention of URIs. In treated children, otitis media incidence was reduced by 24% (relative risk [RR] 0.76; 95% CI, 0.64-0.91) and risk of URI was reduced by 38% (RR 0.62; 95% CI, 0.50-0.78).10 The number needed to treat (NNT) was 4 for URI prevention, and the authors noted that adverse events were similar in the treatment and control groups.

A 2014 systematic review and meta-analysis of 20 RCTs examining duration of illness included 10 studies dedicated to pediatric subjects (age 12 months to 12 years).11 There were significantly fewer days of illness per person (standardized mean difference -0.31; 95% CI, -0.41 to -0.11) and each illness episode was shorter by three-quarters of a day (weighted mean difference -0.77; 95% CI, -1.5 to -0.04) in participants who received a probiotic vs those who received a placebo. Probiotics used in these studies belonged to the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera.

A 2015 systematic review of 14 RCTs assessing the benefits of probiotics, particularly Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains, on URI occurrence and symptoms, showed mixed results.12 Seven of 12 studies found lowered rates of URI and otitis media incidence, 7 of 11 RCTs reported a significant reduction in severity scores for URI, and 4 of 8 RCTs reported significant reductions in school absenteeism between the probiotic and control groups. In a summary statement, the authors noted that “at least one beneficial effect of prophylactic probiotics was observed in the majority of RCTs,” and that “none of the studies reported any serious adverse events.”

Next Article: