Breastfeeding is the foremost way for a child to acquire sufficient nutrients to facilitate the growth and development of the various systems in the body. A mother’s gastrointestinal health or gut health is a crucial factor in the nutrient density of her breast milk.
Breastfeeding mothers can consume probiotics to improve the nutrition of breast milk for their infant. Probiotics will help improve their gut microbiome which will also improve the quality of breast milk in terms of the volume of nutrients and probiotics.
This article will define and discuss probiotics and its benefits for both the mother and the infant. It will also highlight specific benefits of probiotics in breast milk for the infant, particularly in terms of improving digestion, growth, and development of their internal systems. Lastly, it will share some of the potential dangers of using probiotic supplements from entry-level brands that can potentially harm the mother and the infant.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics help in improving the gut microbiome for better digestion and a stronger immune system. As poor lifestyle changes and food choices gradually deplete the quality of the gut microbiome, probiotics replenish the number of good bacteria to provide sufficient balance within the body.
Probiotics are essential for infants to speed up the development of their immune system and facilitate good digestion. Most of the probiotics that infants gain from their mother are during pregnancy and childbirth.
The contact with the vagina coats them with a large number of probiotics. As such, it is often suggested to deliver normally because babies born through normal delivery have greater probiotics and are therefore perceived as healthier. It is also suggested to avoid using cleansing agents for the vagina because it can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria.
Two of the most common probiotics that babies have upon childbirth are Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli. These probiotics, along with other strains, are responsible for the immunity of the child against diseases. They nourish the good gut bacteria in the intestines and promote healthier digestive and immune system.
Afterward, the child receives probiotics from their mother’s breast milk. Breast milk contains around 700 different bacteria that include probiotic strains Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and Enterococcus. In terms of Lactobacillus, breast milk contains three strains namely, Lactobacillus gasseri, Lactobacillus fermentum, and Lactobacillus salivarius.
The mother’s gut microbiome directly affects the volume of probiotics contained within the mother’s breast milk. As such, a mother’s weak microbiome often leads to a weak microbiome for the child.
The enteromammary pathway hypothesis suggests that nourishing the mother’s body will also nourish the child through breastfeeding. Changes in diet and lifestyle for the mother can therefore positively affect the child’s development.
Intake of natural probiotic-rich foods can help boost the mother’s gut microbiome. Some of the best natural probiotic-rich foods include buttermilk, soft cheese, kefir, and yogurt. For non-dairy choices, plant sources rich in probiotics include kimchi, miso soup, tempeh, pickles, sauerkraut, and kombucha tea.
There are also probiotic supplements on the market that can help provide substantial amounts of probiotics into the body. However, precautions are necessary in terms of the contents of the supplements to avoid any complications for the mother and the child.
Benefits of Probiotics for Breastfeeding Mothers
Intake of probiotics can be beneficial from pregnancy to childbirth. Probiotics can increase the production of vitamin B in the body which can minimize the occurrence of morning sickness and also help in the neurological and nervous system development of the child.
For breastfeeding mothers, probiotics can help prevent the development of urinary tract infection (UTI) as well as mastitis or the infection due to clogged milk ducts. It can also prevent nausea due to GI tract infection. It can also improve cognitive ability and mood, help lose weight, and prevent coronary heart diseases as well as control blood pressure.
Mothers consistently taking in probiotics can help provide all-around protection for the infant through breast milk in terms of digestive and immunity functions.
However, probiotics do not directly transfer from the mother to the child. It only improves the gut microbiome of the mother’s GI tract which subsequently increases and improves the probiotic content of breast milk.
Benefits of Probiotics for Infants
Gut Health and Gut Microbiome
Probiotics can help improve gut health and gut microbiome for both the mother and the child. It can help repopulate good bacteria for better digestion and a strong immune system.
Specifically, the oligosaccharides called human milk oligosaccharides (HMO) present in breastmilk promotes the development of good and healthy gut bacteria. It is an indigestible saccharide polymer that protects the intestines. Aside from the microbial diversity present in breast milk, it also contains special types of sugar that nourish healthy gut bacteria.
Prebiotics, moreover, are soluble-type fibers that stimulate and promote the development of probiotics in the gastrointestinal tract. It contains specific types of oligosaccharides including fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin. Breastfeeding mothers can acquire prebiotics from natural plant sources including asparagus, artichoke, onions and leeks, legumes, cabbage, and cauliflower.
The main role of probiotics is to improve digestion. The Lactobacillus reuteri strain can help solve digestive problems including acid reflux. Probiotics can also help in digesting carbohydrates and converting it into energy.
It can also help in absorbing nutrients and minerals from food and facilitating bowel movement. Lack of probiotics for infants can lead to constipation, regurgitation, and bloating. It can also lead to frequent vomiting.
Usually, these digestive problems can result in an infant’s frequent crying. Lifestyle and diet changes that can improve the probiotic contents of a mother’s breast milk can help improve the infant’s bowel movement and metabolism. Greater fecal frequency and consistency are often signs of a healthier gut.
One of the most important, yet overlooked, benefits of probiotics is the enhancement of the mother and child’s immune system. The transfer of nutrients and antibodies from the mother to the child reduces the mother’s immunity. Taking in probiotics from natural sources or through high-quality supplements can help reinforce and ensure the mother’s immunity throughout the breastfeeding phase.
Sufficient probiotic concentration in infants can increase the number of good bacteria in the gut for stronger immunity against infections and diseases. This is extremely beneficial for infants given their immature immune system upon childbirth.
Breast milk is one of the preliminary sources of antibodies for infants. Probiotics in breast milk contain antibodies like Immunoglobulin A or IgA which help fight against diseases. It also fights disease-carrying bacteria that infants can get from their external environment. The cytokines present in breast milk also help improve the infant’s immunity against diseases.
Probiotics in breast milk also have anti-inflammatory properties to counter infections and also promote the production of Vitamin B and Vitamin K essential for physical growth and development of the nervous system. It also improves blood quality which promotes healthier skin and prevents anemia.
Probiotics can also prevent skin rashes due to yeast infection. Yeast is normally present within the infant’s digestive tract. However, yeast infection can occur due to an imbalance in the gut microbiome. Probiotics can increase the population of good bacteria like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium to counter the development of yeast infection in the gut.
Probiotics can also help prevent the development of eczema for the mother and the infant. It can also help prevent the development of more serious gastrointestinal diseases for infants like necrotizing enterocolitis.
A healthy stream of probiotics for the infant can stimulate the production of folate, which is a type of B-vitamin that promotes growth. It can also help promote faster development of the brain, which reduces the risk of mental illness during adolescence and adulthood.
Caution Against Probiotic Supplements
Probiotics can supplement nutrition in a mother’s breast milk. However, depending on the probiotic supplement, it can produce several side effects. “Low-quality” probiotic supplements can lead to gastrointestinal issues including stomach cramps and diarrhea.
Probiotic supplements that contain sweeteners and multi-ingredient powders can cause infections due to bacterial contamination. They can also lead to allergies, especially for supplements that contain lactose and soy.
Some probiotic supplements also market multi-strain probiotics which can be more harmful than beneficial. Multi-strain probiotics can cause various bacteria strains to fight against one another, depleting the number of good bacteria in the gut microbiome.
Strain incompatibility can also cause necrotizing enterocolitis in infants. As such, single-strain probiotics are often preferred and considered to be more effective for maintaining a balanced and healthy gut microbiome.
Breast milk is usually sufficient in providing nutrition for an infant to facilitate all-around growth and development. Intake of a probiotic supplement is only necessary to ensure sufficient probiotic supply for both the mother and the infant.
Mothers have to be cautious in giving probiotic supplements directly to their infants. Some probiotic supplements can be incompatible with their child’s digestive system and can cause GI tract irritation.
Infants are most susceptible to diseases and infections due to greater gastric permeability caused by low pancreatic and gastric enzymes. To ensure safety, it is best to nourish the infant by nourishing their own body first and relying on the enteromammary pathway to pass sufficient and good-quality nutrition through breast milk.
Probiotics are known for their benefits on the digestive system. It is often incorporated in various products as a marketing strategy to promote better digestion. However, probiotics also improve immunity against diseases, which can be passed on to an infant through breastfeeding.
Choosing only certified probiotic supplements and natural probiotic sources can help mitigate the risk of bacterial contamination that can harm the mother and the infant.