When the digestive system affects baby's sleep

There is a close interaction between the intestine and sleep rhythm and development in infants Two researchers at the University of Fribourg, working with colleagues from ETH Zurich and the Children’s Hospital of Lucerne, have just received a SNSF grant of 2.4 million CHF to better understand these fundamental mechanisms of infant health.

For several years now, the complex interactions between the digestive system and the brain have fascinated researchers around the world. Scientists have assembled a growing body of data demonstrating that the gut microbiota, which is made up of billions of microorganisms including bacteria, viruses, and fungi, affect neurological development, a process that is of fundamental importance in infants and young children.

A pivotal process for infants
At birth our digestive system is practically “sterile,” but it is rapidly colonized by microbiota, especially during the first two years of life. When this process does not occur in an optimal way, it can cause long-term health problems. Prematurely born infants, are particularly at risk for sleep and developmental problems. Despite improvements in neonatal care, rates of premature births continue to rise, especially because of pregnancies among increasingly older women, environmental factors, and chronic disorders like hypertension and diabetes. “It is important then to find preventive measures and effective therapies for these at risk infants,” PD Petra Zimmerman and Prof. Salome Kurth explain. These specialists of infant and children’s sleep at the University of Fribourg, along with their colleagues Prof. Nicholas Bokulich of ETH Zurich and Prof. Martin Stocker of the Children’s Hospital of Lucerne, have just begun a focused study called NapBiome, a SNSF project with 2.4 million CHF in funding.

Finding the right balance
The team of scientists is looking for the best way to target intestinal microbiota in order to improve infants’ sleep rhythms and support neuronal development. “We are counting on running several experiments during which we will be administering synbiotics to the babies, that is, good intestinal bacteria. We will then examine the degree to which sleep and neuronal development improve in full-term and premature babies,” Petra Zimmermann explains.

How the study unfolds
To be representative, the study will include a cohort of around 380 infants. One part of the group will receive symbiotics and the rest a placebo. The parents will fill out an online questionnaire and collect stool samples from their infants. When they turn one and two respectively, the infants will be clinically evaluated in the hospital, especially in terms of development and the presence of allergies.

Finding the right microbiotic cocktail
When the study is completed in August 2028, the researchers hope to better understand how administering synbiotics can support the sleep rhythm and neurobehavioral development of premature and full-term infants by modifying the composition of their intestinal microbiota. “We will be able to take action more effectively so that our children grow and develop harmoniously,” Salome Kurth concludes.