“There are thousands of different probiotic strains which are associated with infant gut health, but no one has previously found the most effective ones for preventing mortality.”

Healthy babies born at or near full-term will naturally develop a set of “good” bacteria in their gut which has a range of benefits including helping them digest food properly and warding off disease.

Pre-term babies, however, can sometimes develop “abnormal” bacteria in their gut which be outright harmful.

Studies into the effectiveness of probiotics had looked at varying parameters including birth weight and how premature the babies were.

Professor Sun said by pulling together a large cohort across the different studies, they were able to see clear patterns in what was the best bacteria to use to prevent the various conditions.

“This is the most advanced network meta-analysis yet done on this subject,” she said.

“We used the most advanced clinical trials for our analysis, which allowed us to be quite confident in the data.”

Neither of the strains are used for premature babies as a matter of course, but Professor Sun said their research suggested it should become standard practice for neonatal intensive care wards.

“It is evident that early probiotic supplementation may benefit premature infants by improving their gastrointestinal tolerance against potential pathogens and regulating the altered gut microbiota to that of a healthy infant,” she said

“We hope this study will contribute to a better understanding of combined probiotics and its effectiveness in reducing future disease burden caused by preterm birth.”

Every year in Australia, about 8 per cent of babies are born premature, defined as before 37 weeks’ gestation, while the figure varies from 5 per cent to 18 per cent around the world.

Babies born between 30 weeks and 37 weeks have a 98 per cent chance of survival, however that drops to about 66 per cent for babies born at 24 weeks.

The research has been published in the journal Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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