What is the difference?
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain living microorganisms that cause changes in your intestinal bacteria population. Prebiotics are foods or supplements that contain a nondigestible ingredient that stimulates the function or growth of naturally occurring probiotics.
What are some examples?
Breastmilk contains prebiotics and possibly some probiotics.
Live active culture yogurt contains both prebiotics and probiotics.
Of course, they can both be added to different foods, infant formulas, and available separately as supplements.
What is everyone so excited about?
There is a lot of exciting research regarding probiotics and prebiotics. There have been claims of probiotics preventing and treating everything from atopic dermatitis (eczema) to cancer. As a pediatrician, the research regarding the prevention of necrotizing entercolitis in premature babies is the most exciting. The most well studied area for general purposes is in the treatment and prevention of diarrhea. Research has shown that probiotics can shorten the duration of an acute gastroenteritis but not prevent it all together.
Do I need to be giving them to my kids?
With any new health food craze or supplement, especially in regards to children, it is important to keep a level head and do your research. I always try to remind families that just as they are cautious about antibiotics and over the counter medications, so should they be about the tempting vitamin and supplement aisles of Whole Foods.
So- what is the bottom line?
As always- breastfeed! Just kidding. But seriously, if you are breastfeeding your child, you can check this off your list. If you have a healthy infant, you can use the infant formulas that have added prebiotics and probiotics if you feel inclined. There is not enough research to say that it is beneficial but enough to prove that it is safe and reasonable. Also, when your child gets sick with the stomach bug- you can reduce the length of their diarrhea by a day or so by supplementing with probiotics. In children with chronic medical illnesses or that have compromised immune systems, I would recommend avoiding any probiotic/prebiotic supplements. There have been reports and cases of the microorganisms in the supplement leading to infection and illness in these fragile children.
In a word, keep it natural. Breastfeed your baby and feed them yogurt when they are old enough. End of story.