Probiotics (which roughly translates to “for life”) are beneficial forms of bacteria/microbiota that can assist the human body in preventing and treating many types of illness and disease—from cancer to diarrhea. We have these beneficial bacteria in our body naturally, but supplementation can greatly support the body in health and healing.
While nearly everyone can benefit from consuming probiotics, using probiotics is especially important and advantageous during pregnancy and once baby is born. Read on to learn all about the amazing benefits of probiotics for mom and baby.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria living in your body that help protect against illness. We can take supplements of these beneficial bacterial or obtain them from some food sources. There are hundreds of different strains of probiotic, which are all important to overall health. Certain strains are particularly good for pregnant women and others best for new mamas and babies.
While we typically think of probiotics as being good for digestive health, they do more to promote health in the body. Probiotics are found lining the mucous membranes of your digestive, urinary, and vaginal tracts. This last one is particularly important in pregnancy, because we want to foster healthy vaginal tissues before and during delivery (more about why below).
Additionally, probiotics are key to a healthy immune system. These beneficial bacteria make up approximately 70% of your immune system, making them an important part of your daily defense mechanisms. Ensuring a healthy balance of good bacteria in the body can foster overall wellness.
Probiotics in pregnancy
Regular use of probiotics in pregnancy can offer women many benefits. These benefits include lower risk of:
- illness (colds and flu)
- gestational diabetes
- urinary tract infections
- yeast infections
- premature labor
Use of probiotics in pregnancy has also been found to keep levels of Group B Streptococcus (Group B Strep) low. Group B Strep is a common bacterium of the vaginal lining, but if levels of these bacteria get too high at the end of pregnancy it can pose some risks to baby. When this issue presents itself, it is often managed during labor/delivery with antibiotics. However, steps in pregnancy, including probiotic use, can reduce the risk of this condition.
Healthy vaginal flora is crucial to baby’s health. Babies are born with a sterile gastrointestinal system and exposure to mom’s vaginal flora is their first exposure to the bacteria their systems will be colonized by. Healthy vaginal flora helps give baby’s immune system a good start. Babies also continue to receive beneficial bacteria through breastfeeding, being held skin to skin, and via saliva exchange (think pacifier “cleanings,” shared spoons, and the like) in the first year.
Postnatal Probiotics Benefits
Recent studies have found that consuming probiotic supplements beginning in the first trimester of pregnancy and continuing their use through at least the first six months of exclusive breastfeeding can help women lose weight after the birth of their baby. Supplements with Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium were linked to less central obesity (defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more or a waist circumference over 80 centimeters).
Probiotic use can be especially important if you need to take antibiotics for any reason in the postpartum period (really any time you take antibiotics, you can benefit from use of probiotics).
When mamas consume probiotics, the health benefits also find their way into breast milk and are passed on to baby. Breast milk is actually the source of our first immune-building “good” bacteria. Since baby’s gut bacteria continues to culture throughout the nursing time, it is great for mama to continue taking probiotics in the postpartum and as long as she breastfeeds.
Probiotics for baby
In addition to receiving probiotics via breast milk, probiotics can also be given to baby directly. Supplementation to baby can take a few forms: you can add a bit of probiotic to a bottle of milk, you can take a little probiotic on your finger to give to baby orally, or you may even put a little on your nipple and baby will ingest it during a feed.
Probiotics have numerous potential benefits for babies including the prevention and treatment of:
- food sensitivities, especially in infants with a family history of allergy
- colic, one study found decreased crying times by up to 75% (look for product containing Lactobacillus reuteri)
- ear infection
- illness (colds and flu)
Research shows that good probiotic exposure in infancy can actually help optimize baby’s weight later in life. Early probiotic exposure may modify the growth pattern of the child by restraining excessive weight gain during the first years of life.
Probiotics: Sources and Guidelines
Different blends of different strains of probiotic may be optimal depending on whether you are pregnant or taking them in the postpartum (or giving to baby). We have a few excellent supplements at the clinic and we can talk to you further about what to look for in a probiotic.
Generally speaking, recommendations tend toward 1 to 10 billion Colony Forming Units for infants, and 10 to 20 billion CFU for older children and adults. To achieve and maintain a therapeutic effect, probiotics must be used consistently to ensure a sufficient and consistent population levels over time. It can be difficult to say exactly what dose is ideal, as products vary. Different probiotics have been shown to be effective at different levels. Products containing a higher number of live probiotics may not be better than one with fewer. It’s best to go with a reputable high-quality brand, ideally one that has been vetted by your health care professionals (such as us!).
There have been no reports of adverse reactions to supplementation of probiotics in moms or babies.
Food sources of probiotics
While supplementation is great, there are also many foods rich in probiotics. Fermented foods are particularly rich in probiotics.
Food sources of probiotics include:
- Spirulina (with other great benefits in pregnancy and in general)
- Miso soup
- Kombucha tea
If you have questions about probiotics, be sure to discuss them with your midwife at your next appointment, give us a call, or stop in. We’d be happy to talk with you further about what to look for in a probiotic or connect you with a great supplement we carry.