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Study Suggests Probiotic Promotes Gastrointestinal Health in Infants

Babies given L. reuteri drops had more bowel movements, less colic and reflux, and fewer doctor visits than those given placebo
January 13, 2014

Italian researchers are reporting the encouraging results of a study looking at whether probiotic drops can help prevent constipation, colic and reflux in infants. The study, funded by the probiotic’s maker, appears today in JAMA Pediatrics.

Researchers enrolled 554 newborns in nine Italian pediatric units. Roughly half received 5 drops of Lactobacillus reuteri (subtype DSM 17938) each day for the first three months of life. The other half received a placebo, or look-alike dummy treatment. Neither parents nor researchers knew which babies got which drops. Each day, parents recorded bowel movements, regurgitations and periods of inconsolable crying (colic).

At three months of age, the babies receiving the probiotic averaged more daily bowel movements (4.2 vs 3.6), and fewer daily regurgitations (2.9 vs 4.6) than the babies getting the placebo. They also spent less time crying each day (28 vs 71 minutes). Over the course of the study, the probiotic was also associated with an average saving of $119 in doctor visits per child.

“Driving a change of colonization during the first weeks of life through giving lactobacilli may promote an improvement in intestinal permeability,” the authors write. “Probiotic administration may represent a new strategy for preventing [constipation, reflux and colic], at least in predisposed children.”

The study used the particular strain of L. reuteri in “BioGaia” infant drops. The probiotic’s Swedish manufacturer funded the research. A number of other probiotic products contain related strains of L. reuteri, which may or may not produce the same effects.

The findings are the latest in a growing body of research looking at probiotics to treat or prevent colic, constipation and other gastrointestinal disorders. The results of these studies have been mixed.

“While this study has important limitations, this particular probiotic has been shown to be generally safe in a number of short-term studies,” comments Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research. Neither Dr. Wang nor Autism Speaks was involved in the study, which was not specific to autism. The limitations Dr. Wang notes included small but significant differences in birth weight and pregnancy duration between the treatment and placebo groups. Potentially, such differences could skew results.

Dr. Wang encourages parents considering this or any probiotic for an infant to consult their child’s doctor.

Also see “GI Distress and Autism: Q&A with Pediatric Gastroenterologist Tim Buie.”