STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This year Americans will spend more than $2 billion on probiotics, supplements aimed at boosting what are called good bacteria inside us. One part of the market that's growing rapidly is probiotics for babies and kids. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Like a lot of new moms, Courtney Becerra finds parenting to be full of surprises and worries.
COURTNEY BECERRA: I have a son named Wyatt. He is 7 months old.
AUBREY: One of her concerns was Wyatt's belly. His whole digestive system just seemed off and his skin was an issue, too. Early on, he got bad rashes and developed eczema.
BECERRA: He would scratch his stomach, and he would be fussy and whining.
AUBREY: Now, when a friend of hers suggested that she try a probiotic marketed specifically for babies, she checked out the product's website and read about some of the research behind it. The gist of what she read is that the probiotic might help boost levels of bifidobacteria, which is thought to be protective.
BECERRA: I asked the pediatrician about starting the probiotics, and she gave me the go ahead.
AUBREY: Probiotics are generally considered safe, but the question is, do they really work to improve health? Courtney Becerra says in her experience, since Wyatt began the probiotic, he seems better. His G.I. system has calmed down, and his skin has cleared up, too. Now, this might be the result of a bunch of things she tried. For instance, she experimented with diet changes that could have altered her breast milk. She also used ointments to help Wyatt's skin. But her hunch is that the probiotic really did work.
BECERRA: As a mom, you want nothing but your baby to be healthy, and that's what I see now.
AUBREY: There are lots of people like Courtney Becerra who are now believers in probiotics. Daniel Merenstein is a family physician at Georgetown University. He says his patients ask about them all the time.
DANIEL MERENSTEIN: A high percentage of patients I see are already taking a probiotic or giving one to their kid.
AUBREY: Merenstein says there is evidence to show that probiotics can be useful for certain conditions in babies and kids.
MERENSTEIN: They definitely help for infantile colic, preventing some diarrhea, especially diarrhea caused by antibiotics, certain diseases for kids, like ulcerative colitis, they've definitely been shown to help.
AUBREY: Now, a lot of the probiotic studies are small and funded by industry, and Merenstein says researchers still have a long way to go to figure out which strains and combinations of bacteria may be effective for which conditions.
MERENSTEIN: Just like antibiotics, different ones need to be used at different dosages and in different lengths for different diseases. There's no question that's how probiotics also work.
AUBREY: When it comes to cost and quality, not all probiotics are the same, and some could be just a waste of money. Probiotic supplements are not regulated the way pharmaceutical drugs are so the quality and dosing can vary from product to product or even batch to batch. Now, as for parents who are thinking of probiotics as part of a prevention strategy to give to their healthy kids the way you'd give, say, a multivitamin, Merenstein says he's skeptical.
MERENSTEIN: I don't think there's any evidence that you need to give a probiotic as a quote, unquote, "prevention."
AUBREY: But as the research continues to evolve, there will be more evidence to show how and when probiotics can help. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
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