Can You Take Probiotics While Breastfeeding? Here's What the Research Says.
Can you take probiotics while breastfeeding? Many mothers ask such a question when they begin nursing. The answer is simply yes! In fact, taking a probiotic while nursing is safe and beneficial for you and your baby.
Most people think of breastfeeding simply as a way to feed their baby, but there is actually much more to it. Breastmilk delivers a rich mix of nutrients, fats, proteins, enzymes, antibodies, and other compounds that play an important role in your baby's growth and immune system development.(1) Breastfeeding is also an instinctive behavior that provides comfort to the child, and bonds the mother and child in a very special way.
That being said, breastfeeding does require a lot of time, energy, effort, and even sacrifice. When you eat something, it can easily pass on to your baby through the breast milk. That is why many mothers modify their diet and supplement with vitamins and minerals during that period to keep the infants healthy. Even though you may need to curtail some of your habits, the sacrifice is well worth it.
Many mothers are also becoming aware of the health benefits of probiotics. Probiotics are part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, but are probiotics safe while breastfeeding?
What Are Probiotics?
The human body is home to trillions of microorganisms. While that may seem like an unsettling thought, these microscopic organisms play an important role in our health. There are both "good" and "bad" bacteria and yeasts, but probiotics are the good ones. They work symbiotically with the human body to help us digest and extract nutrients from our food and maintain healthy immune defenses, among other functions.
Modern life isn't always kind to our microbial friends, however. Exposure to everyday environmental toxins and chemicals, use of antibiotics, eating processed foods, and persistent stress can all take a toll on your friendly microbial population. When that happens, it's easier for the not-so-friendly microbes to start taking over, and you may start having problems with your digestive health or immune health.
That's where probiotic supplements come in. They are designed to help repopulate your body with friendly microbes and restore balance to your microbial population, or microbiome. You can also get probiotics by eating fermented foods, such as yogurt and sauerkraut.
The Infant Microbiome
Where do we first acquire our friendly microbes? From our mothers. A woman's microbiome actually shifts during pregnancy, presumably for the benefit of the baby. When babies are born, they get their first big dose of friendly bacteria from the mother's birth canal. This is very important for helping them to develop their nascent immune systems -- in fact, babies born through a Caesarian section, who never pass through the birth canal, tend to have more immune system problems, such as asthma and type 1 diabetes.(2)
Breastfeeding is also important for helping to establish a baby's microbiome. Mom's breastmilk delivers friendly bacteria to the baby, including important probiotic strains such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Studies show that breastfed infants have higher amounts of these beneficial microbes than formula-fed infants, even after breastfeeding stops. Establishing a healthy microbiome supports the baby's healthy immune system development and can have lasting health benefits.(1)
Taking Probiotics While Breastfeeding
Having a healthy microbiome isn't just important for your own health, it also helps shape your baby's microbiome. So are probiotics safe while breastfeeding?
It's always advised to check with your own health care provider before trying a new supplement when you're pregnant or breastfeeding. This is because most supplements aren't extensively studied in pregnant and lactating women specifically. That said, probiotics are generally considered safe and well-tolerated, and the research so far points to them being safe for pregnant and breastfeeding moms as well.(3)
Research indicates that probiotics most likely aren't transferred directly through your breastmilk to your baby.(4) Instead, they work by altering the composition of your own gut flora, which supports your own digestive and immune health, and can also change the microbial composition of your breastmilk, benefitting your baby indirectly. That way, your own body decides which probiotic strains to pass on to your baby.
Here's what the research says so far about the health benefits of taking probiotics while breastfeeding:
1. Taking a Probiotic While Nursing May Protect Against Infant Eczema
Eczema is an inflammatory skin disease that's common in babies and children, particularly those with allergies or asthma. It's thought to be the result of a hypersensitive immune response. Babies are at higher risk of eczema if any of their parents or siblings have allergic conditions.
Studies have found that taking probiotics while pregnant or breastfeeding may reduce the risk of infant eczema for these higher-risk babies, by enhancing the immune-protective benefits of breast milk.(5)
In fact, the World Allergy Organization (WAO) came out with guidelines in 2015 for taking probiotics while breastfeeding to potentially prevent allergic conditions in babies. After a thorough review of the existing research, they concluded that the evidence was strongest for eczema, but that there might be benefits for other allergic conditions as well.
2. Probiotics for Breastfeeding Moms May Help With Breast Infections
Many breastfeeding moms develop painful, inflammatory breast infections, such as mastitis or thrush. The standard treatment for bacterial and yeast infections is antibiotics, but this has downsides.
Antibiotics tend to wipe out the good microbes along with the bad, which can weaken your natural defenses against future infection. Overuse of antibiotics can also lead to antibiotic-resistant microbial strains, which are that much harder to get rid of.
Research suggests probiotics may help. In two studies, women who took probiotics for mastitis showed a greater reduction of symptoms compared to the control groups.(6)(7) Their breastmilk also showed lower counts of the bacterial infection, and higher counts of the probiotic strains they had taken, demonstrating that the probiotics had successfully colonized and been transferred into the milk.
While mastitis is a bacterial infection, thrush is a yeast infection that's thought to be related to Candida, a common vaginal yeast infection. Since probiotics have been successfully used to help the body defend against other forms of Candida,(8) they may also help defend against nipple thrush.
Even if you do take antibiotics for an infection, it's a good idea to take probiotics afterward, to help rebuild your population of helpful microbes.
3. Taking Probiotics While Breastfeeding Supports Maternal Health & Well-Being
Pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding put high demands on the body. It's common for new moms to struggle with digestive issues, nutrient depletion, mood changes, and other disruptions. The good news is that probiotics may help.
Probiotics are generally known to support digestive health and regularity and to help normalize your gut health. They also help break down food and extract nutrients more efficiently, which is important for making sure you and your baby get the nutrition you need.
Probiotics have also been shown to influence mood through the gut-brain axis. Interestingly, research has linked postpartum mood changes with changes in the gut microbiome.(9) A recent study suggests that probiotics may help support a healthy postpartum mood.(10)
We still have much to learn about probiotics and the many ways they influence our health. What we do know is that a mom's health has a direct influence on her baby's health, first through pregnancy and then through breastfeeding. So take good care of yourself, eat healthily, and maintain a healthy microbiome. The better you feel, the better off your baby will be.
1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6267579/, Baldassarre, Maria Elisabetta et al. “Rationale of Probiotic Supplementation during Pregnancy and Neonatal Period.” Nutrients vol. 10,11 1693. 6 Nov. 2018, doi:10.3390/nu10111693
2. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/26/the-human-microbiome-why-our-microbes-could-be-key-to-our-health, "The human microbiome: why our microbes could be the key to our health," The Guardian, 2018 Mar.
3. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/probiotics-during-pregnancy, Kuballa, Jillian "Should You Take Probiotics During Pregnancy?", Healthline May 2021.
4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3056676/, Elias, Jackie et al. “Are probiotics safe for use during pregnancy and lactation?.” Canadian family physician Medecin de famille canadien vol. 57,3 (2011): 299-301.
5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11799376/, Rautava S, Kalliomäki M, Isolauri E. Probiotics during pregnancy and breast-feeding might confer immunomodulatory protection against atopic disease in the infant. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2002 Jan;109(1):119-21. doi: 10.1067/mai.2002.120273. PMID: 11799376.
6. https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/AEM.02599-07#, Oral Administration of
7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20455694/, Arroyo R, Martín V, Maldonado A, Jiménez E, Fernández L, Rodríguez JM. Treatment of infectious mastitis during lactation: antibiotics versus oral administration of Lactobacilli isolated from breast milk. Clin Infect Dis. 2010 Jun 15;50(12):1551-8. doi: 10.1086/652763. PMID: 20455694.
8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31112355/, Shenoy A, Gottlieb A. Probiotics for oral and vulvovaginal candidiasis: A review. Dermatol Ther. 2019 Jul;32(4):e12970. doi: 10.1111/dth.12970. Epub 2019 May 30. PMID: 31112355.
9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7550660/, Zhou, Yumei et al. “Fecal Microbiota Changes in Patients With Postpartum Depressive Disorder.” Frontiers in cellular and infection microbiology vol. 10 567268. 29 Sep. 2020, doi:10.3389/fcimb.2020.567268
10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5652021/, Slykerman, R F et al. “Effect of Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 in Pregnancy on Postpartum Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Randomised Double-blind Placebo-controlled Trial.” EBioMedicine vol. 24 (2017): 159-165. doi:10.1016/j.ebiom.2017.09.013