Probiotics may soon be widely known as the baby-friendly bugs. Research has already associated them with a variety of benefits to babies, such as a reduced risk of diabetes, milk allergies, and acid reflux. Most recently, in a study published in Nature, researchers have found evidence that probiotics plus prebiotics (known in combination as “synbiotics”) could reduce the risk of infantile sepsis, a life-threatening condition caused by infection that is a leading cause of death in infants in developing countries. In the US, sepsis is estimated to affect one in four infants with low birth weight. To understand the relationship between sepsis and synbiotics, researchers enrolled 4,556 breastfed infants in rural India who weighed at least 4.4 lbs at birth, were no more than five weeks premature, and showed no signs of sepsis. Between the second and fourth day after birth, the infants began receiving a seven-day course of either a synbiotic supplement containing approximately 109 organisms of a probiotic strain of Lactobacillus plantarum, 150 mg of fructooligosaccharide, and 100 mg of maltodextrin as an inactive filler; or a placebo containing 250 mg of maltodextrin. When researchers tracked the infants for 60 days, monitoring weight changes and recording cases of sepsis or other infections, they found that:
Mortality linked to sepsis was 40% lower in infants given the synbiotic (5.4%) compared with infants given the placebo (9%).
Infants given the synbiotic had a reduced risk of developing sepsis, fewer lower respiratory tract and other infections, and more weight gain compared with infants given the placebo.
These findings suggest that a synbiotic containing Lactobacillus plantarum plus fructooligosaccharide could help at-risk infants stay healthy in their first months of life, which may have important implications for infant health in developing countries. In addition, this potentially life-saving intervention comes at a low cost—the authors of this study estimated that the cost per treated baby was about $1 (US). If you have questions about whether your newborn might benefit from a synbiotic supplement, talk with your obstetrician.