For the very smallest of preemie newborns—preterm babies weighing 2 pounds, 2 ounces or less at birth—nutrient absorption and weight gain are critical components for healthy growth. And now researchers think they have found a new weapon in the fight to help these tiny babies thrive: probiotics.
In a recent study of preemie infants presented May 1, 2010, before the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, a research team from Saint Louis University School of Medicine added small amounts of probiotics—the gut-friendly "good bacteria" found in foods like yogurt—to the feeding tubes of 50 low birth weight preemie babies. Babies received probiotic-enriched feedings until the equivalent of the 34th week of pregnancy (or whenever they were discharged from the hospital). Compared to another group of preemies, babies who received probiotics supplementation showed better weight gain—with no noticeable side effects or added complications.
"These findings strongly suggest that probiotic supplementation … plays a major role in feeding tolerance and nutrient absorption," says lead researcher Dr. Mohamad Al-Hosni, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. "Improved tolerance of feedings and nutrient absorption lead to better weight gain in this extremely premature infant group."
According to BabyZone expert Beth M. Iovinelli, RN, BSN, IBCLC, probiotics are substances thought to promote a healthy intestinal tract. "Your (and Baby's) intestinal tract contains what is commonly referred to as 'normal flora,'" Iovinelli writes. "The flora of your gut consists of hundreds of microorganisms that fight disease, help synthesize vitamins and hormones, and aid your immune system. These microorganisms include what are referred to as 'good bacteria.' These good bacteria can attack unwanted intruders from disrupting the normal balance of the intestinal tract."
Dr. Al-Hosni's research team was surprised to note that babies on probiotics tended to eat less even though their growth was more rapid, possibly because probiotics helped babies absorb nutrients more efficiently. Researchers conclude that larger clinical trials are needed to demonstrate the safety of probiotic supplementation for use in this group of infants.