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New moms have plenty to worry about. Is taking probiotics while breastfeeding another one of those worries? In other words, is it okay for a breastfeeding parent to take probiotics when also providing breastmilk to a baby?
In most cases, it’s fine for breastfeeding or lactating parents to take probiotics themselves. There’s very low risk to their baby, and maybe even some benefit.
Today’s post goes into detail about what probiotics are, why a parent may want to take a probiotic supplement, how a breastfed baby is affected by a mom taking probiotics, and what we’re learning about infant gut health.
What are probiotics?
The current definition of probiotics includes a live microorganism that people consume (eat, for example) that helps them be healthier. These live microorganisms are too small to be easily seen and usually refer to beneficial bacteria or yeast.
The supplements come in different strains, depending on the product. For reference, some common strains found in supplements include lactobacillus fermentum and Bifidobacterium infantis (B. Infantis). Saccharomyces boulardii CNCM I-745 is the strain found in the common probiotic supplement Florastor (affiliate link).
The same or similar microorganisms are often found in and around our bodies already. They’re part of the human “microbiome.” The microbiome refers to the living things that are already on and in our body.
They’re also common in many foods like yogurt, certain cheeses, or sauerkraut.
It’s a newer area of research, but it’s likely that probiotics have many health benefits. They may influence immune health and can help promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
(We have bacteria in our gut anyway. A general goal is to not let “bad bacteria” overrun all the healthy bacteria).
Why would a breastfeeding parent take probiotic supplements?
Even though probiotics can be found in foods, sometimes adults choose specific probiotic supplementation.
One common reason to take probiotics is to help balance gut bacteria after or with a course of antibiotics. For many people, antibiotics can affect their gut microbiome. So, sometimes probiotics are recommended to help foster the good bacteria again.
To be clear, if someone has a health condition involving harmful bacteria (like urinary tract infections, for example) that requires use of antibiotics, they should absolutely follow the advice of their healthcare provider. Even if it means potentially disrupting gut bacteria.
How do probiotics affect breastfeeding moms?
Sometimes, a breastfeeding mother may also choose to take probiotics to improve her overall health. There’s growing recent research that suggests probiotics may help certain conditions like constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and atopic dermatitis.
Recent studies have only started to uncover the beneficial effects of taking probiotics. And, to be clear, some clinical trials did not show a clear benefit. They’re not a cure-all. So, probiotic supplements are not something that’s universally recommended for every adult or kid. There’s still too much to learn.
So, a breastfeeding parent may take probiotics for their microbiome and overall health.
Taking probiotics is related to the human microbiome. We especially think about the gut since most probiotics are swallowed and therefore end up directly in the gut. Gut microbiota likely plays an important role many aspects of our health (see this post for more).
And, there are many other ways to improve our microbiomes too! (See these posts on improving the microbiome with our diet and how kids may influence their microbiomes simply by playing in nature).
How could maternal probiotics affect breastfed babies?
Generally, it’s accepted as safe for a breastfeeding mom to take probiotics. There’s very low risk of any issues with her baby. We also wouldn’t expect probiotic use to affect milk supply.
Let’s remember that babies and kids have their own microbiomes too. Although their digestive system develops before they are born, the organisms in the digestive tract (again, the gut microbiome) continues to evolve and change as babies grow. A healthy gut microbiome generally seems to be related to a wide variety of different healthy bacteria and other microorganisms, even in kids.
More than just probiotics can affect a baby’s health.
So, a baby’s gut health and their own microbiome are affected by many things. This makes sense. We think about all the microorganisms babies are exposed to throughout their early months especially.
It starts with whether they’re born via vaginal birth or cesarean section. (With a vaginal birth, a baby is exposed to more bacteria as they pass through the birth canal).
Then, whether they have breast milk (also known as human milk) or infant formula will also affect all the microorganisms that live in and on them (that microbiome again).
Later, their gut flora is influenced by solid foods being introduced, usually around 6 months of age.
Just like with adults, it’s likely that a baby or child’s microbiome also affects many health conditions.
Based on what we know now, the fact that a baby gets breastmilk at all will have a big influence on their health. By comparison, the use of probiotics by the baby’s mom is still something we know less about.
In fact, there’s some early evidence that probiotics taken by pregnant women or mothers may have a positive influence on the infant microbiome of breastfed infants. This is too preliminary to draw any overarching conclusions, but it also points to the same idea that it’s okay for breastfeeding moms to take probiotics.
(This is not necessarily the same for all dietary supplements, so each should be approached thoughtfully and separately).
We still have a lot to learn about probiotics and breastfed babies.
I have to emphasize that we don’t have a lot of research on this specifically. But, for perspective, we can take a step back and remember probiotic-rich foods. Yogurt with live cultures. Sauerkraut. Kimchi. Many cheeses. Such foods with live beneficial bacteria are fine for most breastfeeding people to eat. We don’t ask people to limit this part of their diet at all, as the potential benefits are great. So, if supplements include the same probiotic strains found in foods, it makes sense that these are okay too.
When it comes to probiotics and breastfeeding, each family does what is best for them.
As I’ve emphasized in other posts about what is safe for breastfeeding mothers to use, my goal is simply to help parents make informed decisions.
See these posts on breastfeeding and:
Too often, someone chooses to stop breastfeeding or to “pump and dump” for unfounded reasons. Life is stressful enough. Parents need to be supported to feed their babies in the way they know is best for their family. When it comes to probiotics, there’s likely a benefit to the nursing mom. So, in this case, she can continue to take care of herself and feed her baby.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier. Subscribe to the newsletter for regular updates.