An overwhelming percentage of infants in America are born lacking an essential bacterium that is critical for breast milk metabolism as well as the progression of the immune system. This deficiency enables harmful pathogens to overpopulate – which often leads to diaper rash and colic, according to new research.
A large number of diverse bacteria are required in the newborn gut in order for it to fulfill a variety of roles ranging from the regulation of metabolic functions to the formation of complex structures and processes. Bifidobacterium infantis (B. infantis) is an important strain of bacteria in the intestinal flora of infants that plays an essential role in newborn development. This particular strain of gut bacteria has been well established as having the most favorable effect on newborn gut health and the capacity to completely harness the nutritional advantages of breast milk.
- infantis is unusual among other Bifidobacteria species due to its adaptability to human breastfeeding and, more notably, its capacity to convert carbs found in breastmilk, known as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), into useable nutrients. Without this particular species, the metabolism of HMOs is virtually impossible. More significantly, B. infantis is associated with the growth of the newborn immune system, reducing the frequency of common childhood illnesses.
“The vast majority of infants are deficient in this key gut bacterium from the earliest weeks of life, and this is completely off the radar for most parents and pediatricians, alike,” says study co-author Karl Sylvester, MD, Professor of Surgery and Pediatrics and Associate Dean of Maternal Child Health Research, Stanford University.
Disparities between healthy and possibly harmful bacteria in the gastrointestinal tracts of newborns are the hallmark of infant dysbiosis. There is compelling evidence indicating a significant decline in Bifidobacteria in the newborn gut over the last century, with studies pointing to a variety of variables, including increasing C-section deliveries, higher antibiotic usage, and a decrease in breast milk consumption.
For the study, the feces of 227 children less than 6 months were collected by researchers during visits to pediatricians in five different states. The samples were tested for the kind and quantity of bacteria present, which corresponds to the bacterial makeup of the newborns’ stomachs. The bacteria were examined for their capacity to completely metabolize HMOs from breast milk. This indicated either healthy gut microbes or the prevalence of antibiotic resistance species.
The researchers excluded samples from newborns with jaundice, those on antibiotics, or with gastrointestinal difficulty processing carbohydrates, owing to the potential influence these diseases may have on the baby’s gut’s capacity to function normally.
The team found that 93% of the bacteria in infants’ gut microbiomes were potentially harmful. These include bacteria such as Staphylococcus, Salmonella, C. diff., and E. coli. – most of which have developed resistance against drugs. Furthermore, they found 325 genes associated with antibiotic resistance in the intestinal microbiota of infants. Approximately 54% of these genes were related to bacterial species.
Considering B. infantis was formerly assumed to be ubiquitous in newborns’ digestive systems, its absence in such a large number of otherwise healthy infants is remarkable. With this study, researchers set a new standard for assessing intestinal bacteria deficiencies among babies in the United States, as well as how their gut microbiota are functioning as a consequence of these deficiencies.
“The infant gut is essentially a blank slate at birth, and rapidly acquires bacteria from mom and the environment. We were surprised not only by the extensive lack of good bacteria but the incredibly high presence of potentially pathogenic bacteria and an environment of antibiotic resistance that appears to be so widespread,” says Dr. Sylvester. “The infant gut microbiome in the U.S. is clearly dysfunctional, and we believe this is a critical factor underpinning many of the infant and childhood ailments we see today across the country.”
Babies who are deficient in B. infantis are more likely to have problems with their immune systems, receive less of the nutritional value of breast milk, and have more dangerous gut bacteria because of a rise in the acidity of their stomachs.
“This study provides the clearest picture to date of just how widespread this issue is and highlights the need to address B. infantis deficiency in the infant gut right from the start,” says Dr. Sylvester.
This study is published in Scientific Reports.