Starting newborns on a three-month probiotic course may promote the formation of tough bacterial cultures capable of fending off infant constipation, acid reflux, and other gastrointestinal disorders that tax public health as well as parental bliss, a new study from the Aldo Moro University of Bari in Italy has found.

Today, many young children suffer from stomach aches, colic, and other complications related to functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs). The syndrome, which can be thought of as a complex of recurring and chronic gastrointestinal issues, is responsible for hospitalizations and parental anxiety in healthcare systems all over the world. However, treatment strategies remain partial at best, as the syndrome is rarely traced back to an underlying disorder.

Dr. Flavia Indrio, physician and lead author of the new study, told reporters that the research effort illuminates a potential preventive therapy that could soon be applied across all cases of FGID. By gradually introducing a culture of lactobacilli bacteria, healthcare providers may be able to stop constipation, acid reflux, and infant colic before they have a chance to develop. Although a finished, optimized therapy may be a couple of years away, the current findings show great promise.

“This preventive strategy needs more study before it is applied to routine clinical practice. For sure, we need to identify the infant in which to use this preventive approach — we are looking to find a more precise factor that could indicate a high-risk infant,” Indrio explained in an email to Medical Daily. “Meanwhile, I would suggest the use in all infant from the first day of life in order to prevent the onset of colic.”

Lactobacillus Reuteri

For the study, the researchers enrolled 554 newborns from nine pediatric units in an experiment with the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri DSM 17938. Over a period of 90 days, parents were asked to keep track of everything from vomiting spells and bowel movements to crying episodes and hospital visits. These logs were subsequently compared to those of a control group.

Indrio and colleagues found that, compared to the control, the treatment group showed significant improvement across most categories, including daily regurgitations and evacuations. In addition, the average duration in crying time was cut in half, and parents saved nearly $119 in medical costs. "Driving a change of colonization during the first weeks of life through giving lactobacilli may promote an improvement in intestinal permeability,” the authors wrote in their conclusion. “Visceral sensitivity and mast cell density and probiotic administration may represent a new strategy for preventing these conditions, at least in predisposed children.”

Probiotics and Children

The current study dovetails with a number of other attempts to draw attention to the potential health benefits of probiotic therapy. Another example is a 2013 study from the California Institute of Technology in which researchers show that reinforced gut bacteria slashes autism symptoms like repetitive behavior and social-interaction difficulties in mouse models of the disorder. Together, these efforts may lead to the emergence of cheap preventive strategies against some of our most debilitating childhood conditions.

Source: Indrio F, Di Mauro A, Riezzo G, et al. "Prophylactic Use of a Probiotic in the Prevention of Colic, Regurgitation, and Functional Constipation: A Randomized Clinical Trial." JAMA Pediatr. 2014