Serious health problems are common in infants who suffer from low birth weight. Beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, may help these tiny patients. Now a new study sheds light on the benefits of probiotics on infants with very low birth weights.
About 7.9 percent of babies were born at a low birth weight in 2012, and 1.42 percent were born at a very low birth weight (VLBW) of 3 pounds, 3 ounces or less. Infants born at low birth weight are more likely to experience serious health problems, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Babies who weigh less than 5.5 pounds at birth are more likely to die in their first year of life, and they are more likely to experience physical and developmental problems.
Problems associated with very low birth weight include hypothermia, low blood sugar, breathing problems, neurological issues, eye problems, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), fluid and electrolyte imbalances, anemia and other blood problems.
Babies born with very low birth weight are also prone to impaired nutrition, feeding difficulties and slow weight gain. These babies are also susceptible to infection because their immune systems are immature compared with babies of normal weight. Prolonged invasive treatments in the hospital nursery, such as catheters and other tubes, increases the risk of infection. Recurrent treatment with antibiotics to treat infections can also affect the immune system of these tiniest of patients.
Scientists want to know more about the benefits probiotics can provide to infants with low and very low birth weights. Previous studies have indicated that certain probiotic strains can help these tiny babies deal with damaged intestinal tissue. Beneficial probiotic bacteria have also been studied for their role in improving rates of late-onset sepsis, which is a blood infection that develops between the 4th and 90th day of life. In addition, probiotics have been studied at a broader level for helping to reduce mortality in these infants.
The effects of probiotics on extremely low birth weight (ELBW) babies, who weigh less than 2 lb 2 oz, are not as conclusive. In the new meta-analysis, scientists from China assessed the information gathered from 44 different studies that included 30 randomized clinical trials of 8,622 patients and 14 observational studies of 13,779 patients.
The researchers published their findings the journal Neonatology. In their report, the scientists noted that the trials included a wide range in birth weights, gestational age, probiotic doses, timing, and types of beneficial bacteria.
Of those 44 studies, 29 of the 30 trials and all 14 observational studies came to the same conclusion – the administration of probiotics significantly reduced the incidence of severe necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) in babies with very low birth weight.
In fact, eight of the observational studies found that probiotics decreased the incidence of sepsis in VLBW babies by as much as 19 percent.
Probiotics were also effective for late-onset sepsis. Data from 28 randomized clinical trials showed that probiotics could reduce the pooled effects late-onset sepsis by 12 percent. Results from eight observational studies found that probiotics could reduce the incidence of late-onset sepsis in very low birth rate babies by 19 percent.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence supporting the use of probiotics for very low birth weight infants was the effects beneficial bacteria had on overall mortality – 27 of the randomized clinical trials showed that the administration of probiotics can significantly reduce the mortality rate of these tiny newborns.
The effects of probiotic supplementation among extremely low birth weight infants are less clear. Three randomized clinical trials showed no significant decrease in NEC, sepsis or mortality. Two of the observational studies, which involved 518 babies, showed a reduced risk of NEC but the reduction was not statistically significant.
Scientists will likely look deeper into the benefits of probiotics for preterm infants, especially for those with low birth weights. It’s important to note that B. infantis is the bacteria that coevolved with breast milk and is, therefore, one of the most important beneficial bacteria for infant gut health as it has a unique ability to digest the key components of human breast milk.
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