Each year, about 29,000 babies are born prematurely in Canada. Premature infants are at an increased risk of infections and even death, but probiotics are increasingly being used as a safe and effective way to prevent health complications.

A year ago, the neonatal intensive care unit at BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver started giving babies born prematurely and weighing 1,500 grams or less five strains of so-called good bacteria on a daily basis.

Research suggests that complications in preemies partially arise from an imbalance in the composition of the infant's microbiota, combined with an immature immune system. And studies around world have shown that the good bacteria can reduce inflammation and fatal gut infections by 50 per cent. 

“It helps them feed better…feed faster, so it reduces the time they have to spend in the hospital,” said Dr. Pascal Lavoie, a researcher and neonatologist at BC Women’s Hospital.

Doctors at the hospital are still conducting a study on the effectiveness of probiotics in premature babies. But they are already seeing much lower rates of illness and death among the infants.

The treatments are also inexpensive.

“Probiotics are actually very cheap therapy, on the order of less than a cup of coffee a day per baby, per dose,” Dr. Julia Panczuk, a neonatologist at BC Women's Hospital, told CTV News.

But Dr. Lavoie said his survey shows that one in seven neonatal units in Canada still haven’t started offering probiotics to premature babies routinely.

“There are still many places in the world that haven't fully endorsed this,” he said.

Doctors say the use of probiotics in premature infants has many benefits, including reducing the risk of a disease called neonatal necrotizing enterocolitis, a severe infection in the gut that may require surgery.

They also say that the more strains of good bacteria given to preemies, the better the outcome. And they hope the work being done at the BC Woman’s NICU will set an example for the rest of the country.

With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip.