Using probiotics to fight dermatitis
Should we be looking at probiotic supplemented formula to reduce the risk of dermatitis and atopic skin conditions in babies?
Probiotics for formula fed babies

While there are genetic forces at play when it comes to dermatitis and eczema, there is a lot that parents can do to prevent their child from going through the misery associated with skin conditions and irritations. 

How to tell if your baby has dermatitis

Dermatitis is a broad term that can also be referred to as eczema or atopic dermatitis. It's signified by red patches and scaly/cracked skin, often in the folds of the skin on hands, knees, elbows and ankles. The skin is no longer a smooth barrier but rather takes on a leathery appearance.

The worst thing about dermatitis is the discomfort - it is neither life threatening nor contagious. Different treatments are likely to work for different people, depending on where the dermatitis is and its severity. 

How it's caused

There are many causes for dermatitis, including genetic predisposition and environmental factors such as weather changes and humidity.  When the skin dries out, moisture is leached from the cells, reducing their overall size. Food allergies and intolerances are other common factors, particularly for atopic dermatitis. Animal hair, pollens, plants, artificial fibres and perfumed skin washes can also contribute.


Traditional treatments have tended to concentrate on reducing skin flare-ups and the symptoms that lead to scratching. As soon as the skin is broken, there is an opening for bacteria to enter and infection to develop.

Moisturisers in the form of washes, lotions and creams hydrate the skin and support the skin cells to remain ‘plump’. Cortisone creams are commonly prescribed but generally for short periods of time. Cortisone, while undoubtedly effective, can thin the skin and increase the risk of scarring and is not ideal as a long term solution or therapy.

How do probiotics fit in?

Some researchers believe that there is a difference in the degree of gut permeability in those with allergies, meaning their gut is not as good at filtering toxins and irritants as those who are less allergic. Once a child has had one allergic response, they can become sensitive to triggers, making further reactions even more pronounced. 

While the findings are inconsistent into this kind of research, probiotic supplementation (when given in controlled, measurable quantities) hasn't been found to do any harm, and could prove a gentle, cheap and relatively non-evasive solution to the dematitis problem.

What are they?

Probiotics are considered healthy or good bacterial organisms which ideally live in our gut or intestines and help to digest food, support our immunity and assist with nutrient absorption. 

All babies are exposed to strains of probiotics when in utero and through general handling after birth as well as through skin to skin contact. Breastfeeding babies get probiotics through their mother’s breast milk but formula fed babies are not provided the same level of exposure, which is why in recent years, studies into formula supplementation have been so eagerly pursued.

Letting kids get dirty

Researchers have also started making a connection between the surge in allergies and our current preoccupation with cleanliness. This is great news for busy mums, as they are recommending that we just aim for a "clean enough" home, and encourage kids to play outdoors. 

Exposure to a range of normal, non-toxic pathogens supports children’s immunity and primes their immune responses.

Feeding babies bacteria

We are probably more ready now than in previous years to accept the view that voluntarily giving our babies bacteria, rather than insulating them, is a good idea. It does seem that specific probiotics strains can modify the changes related to allergic inflammation and not just provide benefits within the gut. And as babies grow into childhood and become sensitised to new antigens or allergic agents, these probiotics may well continue to provide protection.

For babies who are sensitive and at more risk of developing atopic conditions, there may well be a place for probiotic supplementations. But is there are place for probiotic supplemented formula in babies who are not considered at high risk of dermatitis and generalised inflammatory skin conditions? Probably not. Giving something which is not needed and for which there is no indication may be going a little far.

This article was written by Jane Barry and adapted for Kidspot, New Zealand's favourite parenting resource for Early Life Nutrition.
Breastfeeding is best for babies and provides many benefits. Combined breast and bottle feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of your own breast milk. Always consult your doctor, midwife or health care professional for advice about feeding your baby. This post is part of the Early Life Nutrition story.
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