A probiotic a day for babies from a week old could protect them from asthma, diabetes and cancer.
Very young children are believed to need the proper balance of bacteria in their gut to help prevent these illnesses.
However being born by cesarean or prematurely changes their gut bacteria, as may antibiotics given to their mother in pregnancy and modern living conditions.
Scientists have found a probiotic, similar to the yogurt drinks taken by adults, may help restore the right balance of gut bugs in breastfed babies.
Being born by cesarean or prematurely changes a baby’s gut bacteria, as may antibiotics given to their mother in pregnancy. Scientists in California have found a way to combat that change
Babies given the supplement daily for three weeks still had the ‘good’ bacteria it contained in their bodies more than a month later. The bugs are believed to also keep them safe from diabetes and food allergies.
Professor Mark Underwood, from the University of California, Davis, who was involved in the research, said: ‘Even though we stopped giving the probiotic on day 28 of life, the particular organisms we gave stayed in their fecal community out to 60 days and even longer.
‘They were surviving and dominating, and that’s something we really have not seen before.’
The gut bacteria of babies during their first few days of life is extremely important in preventing the inflammation thought to lead to conditions such as asthma.
However babies born by cesarean do not get the same rich bacteria from their mother as if they passed through the birth canal. Instead their bacteria is more similar to the environment of the hospital they are born in.
There are also concerns the modern preoccupation with hygiene is preventing babies from getting the right mix of bugs.
The US researchers monitored 66 babies in their first weeks of life, giving just over half of them a probiotic containing an important type of gut bacteria called Bifidobacterium longumsubspecies infantis, or B. infantis.
This was a powder, mixed with their mother’s breast milk, and administered through a syringe similar to those used to give babies medicine.
The concern, as in previous studies, was that the probiotic would only change babies’ guts temporarily. However the infants displayed lasting changes, showing the bugs had remained in their system, and had higher levels of them than babies not given the probiotic.
Crucially, all the babies were breastfed, and the researchers believe the sugars in their mothers’ milk may have sustained the bacteria, which feeds on them.
The study was funded by Evolve Biosystems, a company which makes probiotics, and was published in mSphere, a journal published by the American Society for Microbiology.
Neonatologist Professor Underwood said formula milk could be developed including breast milk sugars, called oligosaccharides , to allow babies who are not breastfed to benefit also.
He said: ‘If mom can’t breastfeed for whatever reason, our hypothesis would be if you give that baby a three-week course of this probiotic and a formula with added human milk oligosaccharides, colonization should happen and persist as long as they’re on that formula.’
Professor Glenn Gibson, head of food microbial sciences at the University of Reading, said: ‘The study is extremely important in that it shows how important a healthy gut microbiome is. The work had major implications for reduced infection rates and atopic issues like eczema and asthma.’