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Do my kids need probiotics?

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What was virtually unknown just a few years ago is now ubiquitous: Probiotics are on grocery shelves everywhere, and they are touted as a miracle cure for just about any ailment. But what are they really good for? And are they good for kids?

Probiotics are essentially living bacteria that are naturally found in the body and can be added to food as supplements. These “good” bacteria can help you with digestion and help combat “bad” bacteria that cause health problems. Probiotics can be helpful, for example, after a round of antibiotics, to help restore the “good” bacteria in your gut and prevent diarrhea.

But the more recent use of probiotics has been in a preventive sense, and to improve general health. There have been studies showing that probiotics may have benefits such as preventing colds. One recent study of children in China showed that those who had drunk milk with probiotics had fewer illnesses and missed fewer days of school. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that this finding could be particularly relevant now that parents are being advised not to use cold medications for young children.

If you decide (and your pediatrician agrees) to give your child probiotic supplements, you should look for a formulation especially for children. If you simply want to enhance your child’s diet, serve yogurt with live active cultures, or fermented foods such as buttermilk, kefir, tempeh, miso, or sauerkraut. There’s no guarantee that these foods will be a cure-all (or if they will cure anything at all) but they certainly can’t hurt, and if they help keep your kids healthy, everybody wins.