Probiotics For Babies May Lower Health Costs and Reduce Colic


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  Lactobacillus acidophilus is used in probiotics to improve digestion. Image by Bob Blaylock

Lactobacillus acidophilus is used in probiotics to improve digestion. Image by Bob Blaylock.

There are many types of gastrointestinal disorders, but the most common among infants in their first six months of life include colic, acid reflux, and constipation.

Pediatricians often prescribe medications, among other ways to calm a baby that is suffering from gastrointestinal upset.

While previous studies have show that the use of daily probiotics can benefit our digestive tract and can help decrease diarrhea when antibiotics are prescribed, a new study has found another positive effect of probiotics: fewer doctor visits for babies.

Baby Probiotics Study

The new study, published JAMA Pediatrics, shows that using probiotics in infants may lead to lower health costs associated with gastrointestinal disorders.

Dr. Flavia Indrio at Aldo Moro University of Bari in Italy led the study, in which researchers examined 554 newborns who were under a week old and were born between September 2010 and October 2012. The infants either received a placebo or a probiotic supplement that contained Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938 bacteria everyday for 90 days.

Probiotic Study Results

The parents were required to keep a journal that included how often the child regurgitated milk or formula and emptied their bowels, the duration of inconsolable crying, and the number of doctor visits.

At the end of the three months, researchers found that the infants who took the daily probiotic emptied their bowels more times more than the placebo group, had lower averages of regurgitation compared to the placebo group, and had shorter periods of inconsolable crying. Researchers also determined that using probiotics saved each patient over 100 dollars in medical costs, and there were no adverse health effects from taking a daily probiotic.

Questions and Answers with Dr. Indrio

Decoded Science had the opportunity to interview the study’s lead author, Dr. Flavia Indrio, of the department of pediatrics at Aldo Moro University of Bari. Decoded Science asked Dr. Indrio why the researchers chose such young infants – only a week old. She tells us that it was to determine whether probiotics could be effective as a preventative measure. “Because we want to test the use in prevention of probiotic before the onset of the disease.” 

We asked Dr. Indrio whether the researchers differentiated between breast fed vs. bottle fed infants, and soy vs. regular formula – since research shows breast fed babies are less prone to constipation and regurgitation. She told us that in the study, the parents weren’t using soy milk, and that there was no difference between the breast fed and bottle fed babies’ reactions to the probiotic. Dr. Indrio also tells us that in her view, constipation is also an issue among breast fed babies.

Although Dr. Indrio tells us that the groups were composed of “Almost 40 % bottle fed and 60& breast fed for each group,” the researchers did not report on those results in the published paper. We asked Dr. Indrio why, and she stated that the results, “Were not included because the analysis was not significant.”


Breast-Fed Babies

In previous studies we find that breast fed babies are not generally constipated, and produce yellow loose bowel movements. This is because breast milk is absorbed more thoroughly than formula. The frequency at which breast-fed babies have bowel movements all depend on the baby. Some breast-fed babies will not have a bowel movement for days – this does not mean they are constipated, its because the breast milk is so thoroughly absorbed, there isn’t any residue. Other breast-fed babies will have a yellow, ‘seedy’ bowel movement every time they eat.

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology Nutrition showed that infants who were formula fed and given a prebiotic mixture had normal growth and stools similar to those who are breast-fed. Prebiotics are nondigestable carbohydrates that act as food for the probiotics, which is fuel for the probiotics to survive, according to the Mayo Clinic.

We find prebiotics in whole grains, onions, garlic, honey, and artichokes, and we find probiotics in yogurt. When prebiotics and probiotics are combined they form a synbiotic. Fermented dairy products such as kefir are synbiotic because they contain both.

What is a Probiotic?

To learn more about probiotics, Decoded Science spoke with Dr. James Pendleton.

A new study found that probiotics were beneficial for newborns. Image by Karen Lefebvre.

A new study found that probiotics were beneficial for newborns. Image copyright Karen Lefebvre, used with permission.

“There are several species of probiotic –with controversy regarding which combination is the most optimal for health.  There’s also controversy regarding the actual content and viability of some probiotic supplements. Finally, the mode and form is important.  Many yogurts have little or no viable strains in them.  Also, supplements must be enterically coated, or taken with a large meal, since digestive HCL and proteases may kill them otherwise.  They generally encourage healthy digestion and bowel movements  by keeping out undesirable microbes like candida and bacteria.   They achieve this by taking up space and making the physical environment inhospitable (secrete lots of acid).  They have secondary health supporting properties:  they secrete compounds that stimulate the immune system; they are associated with less obesity and irritable bowel symptoms.   Probiotics may not be appropriate during certain phases of inflammatory bowel disease or when folks are immunocompromised.”

Study Outcome: What Does this Mean for Babies?

This new study found that probiotics can help decrease vomiting and the duration of inconsolable crying – and increase the number of times that newborns were able to empty their bowels, even in formula-fed infants, who are more prone to constipation. If you are considering supplementation for yourself or your baby, talk with your health care provider first.

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