If you’re a parent, then the word “bacteria” is akin to a bad word, especially when it’s responsible for your kid’s pesky infection. Bacteria can wreak havoc on the system and turn your normally energetic, good-natured kid into a lethargic, cranky little human. And as parents will agree, there’s nothing worse than seeing a child suffer through an illness (not to mention the sleepless nights and anxiety on a parent’s part).

But just as there are bad bacteria that can make your kids sick, there are also good bacteria that can help improve their health. These good bacteria are called probiotics and they’re the current buzzword in the world of kids’ health.

The Role of Probiotics for Kids

Probiotics for kids can be found in kid supplements, grocery-shelf foods like breakfast cereal and snack bars supercharged with probiotics, and regular food that inherently come with probiotics, like yogurt and soft cheeses. But is it just hype or is it really good for your kids?

Probiotics Basics

Probiotics, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, are “live strains of strictly selected microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host.”

To better understand probiotics, it’s best to know more about the digestive system: The digestive tract, particularly the colon and large intestine, is home to trillions of microorganisms, collectively known as your gut microbiome.

The microorganisms are a mix of good (keep digestive system healthy, manufacture vitamins, make metabolic functions more efficient, strengthen immune system) and bad (which can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, among others). Probiotics keep the gut flora balanced, helping prevent diseases.

Probiotics work by predigesting food, putting less strain on your digestive tract, working wonders on your gut flora, and ultimately improving overall health. Studies have shown that probiotics have positive effects on gastrointestinal diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, allergic diseases like atopic dermatitis, and may be used to treat obesity, type 2 diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Some reports suggest that it may be effective against some types of cancer. But of course, this all depends on the strain and dosage of the probiotics. The main strains in probiotic products for kids are Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces boulardii (technically a yeast and not bacteria).

Benefits of Probiotics for Kids

The effects of probiotics on adults has been studied more extensively than the effects on children but given that kids have a fully developed gut microbiome by the age of 2.5 to 3, it can be surmised that probiotics also have a positive effect on young ones. So far, the research suggests that probiotics for kids have the following benefits:

Helps prevent respiratory tract infections. It’s normal for kids to get sick more often once they start school as they’re in an enclosed space with several other kids, increasing their exposure to germs. A 2017 review found that Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG effectively prevented respiratory tract infection in day care centers.

Helps counteract negative side effects of antibiotics. Some infections (such as ear infections that children commonly get) may require a round of antibiotics. But while antibiotics are great at fighting off infections, they can also have unpleasant side effects like diarrhea. This usually just runs its course but can be very uncomfortable for your child. Probiotics may help combat or minimize this side effect.

May shorten the duration of a tummy illness. A 2017 review pointed to probiotic strains Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Saccharomyces bouladii as effective treatments for acute gastroenteritis (characterized by loose or liquid stool, an increase in bowel movements to more than three times per day, and possible vomiting and fever).

Helps manage irritable bowel syndrome. Just as probiotics can help adults with irritable bowel syndrome, so too can it help kids. A review published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition suggests that probiotics can affect the gut flora as well as brain function and pain perception related to this gastrointestinal disorder.

Best Probiotics for Kids

Much research still needs to be done to come up with conclusive evidence for the benefits of probiotics on kids’ health but there is certainly no harm in adding them to your kid’s diet. Just be sure to run it by your doctor first; in some cases, probiotics may not be recommended, such as for kids who are chronically ill or immune-compromised.

You can introduce probiotics through yogurt (just make sure it’s labeled with “live and active cultures) and, if your kid’s not a picky eater, through fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi. If you would like to introduce a kid supplement, ask your doctor for recommendations. Keep an eye out for the probiotic strains that have been mentioned in studies and go for high-quality brands as manufacturing and storage matters when it comes to keeping probiotics alive.