Bigger, heavier children due to antibiotics

Antibiotics stimulate children's growth, both in height and weight, particularly antibiotic treatments given during the first two years of life. These findings from a study done at Maastricht University are published in The Journal of Pediatrics today. The study followed nearly a thousand children over the course of ten years and also took other factors that can influence growth into account. The research was made possible by the Maastricht KOALA study; a large birth cohort in which children are followed from birth.

The present study analysed GP data about the use of antibiotics among 979 children during the first ten years of their lives. Their heights and weights were recorded at seven intervals, in the first years by early childhood clinics and by parents at home later on. Children who received antibiotics in their first six months and those who received several antibiotic treatments between their first and second year grew notably taller and heavier than children who had not received antibiotics. Considering the national rise in obesity, the researchers recommend taking this effect of certain antibiotics into account when issuing prescriptions. Children are currently still the main recipients of antibiotics. Around 70% of treatments are prescribed for respiratory infections, often unnecessarily.

Of the 979 children included in the study, 613 (63%) received at least one antibiotic treatment in their first ten years of life. Of them, 127 (13%) received four or more treatments in those ten years. Effects on height and weight were mainly observed in connection with the penicillin-like beta-lactam class of antibiotics. Though scientists do not yet fully understand the mechanism responsible for this effect, it is currently assumed to be caused by the influence of antibiotics on intestinal flora. The study findings support this theory, as intestinal flora in children up to the age of two or three is more sensitive to disruption than in older children and adults.

The study was able to rule out other factors that influence children’s growth, such as the mother’s weight and smoking habits during pregnancy, the length of the breastfeeding period and the amount of physical activity of the children themselves. The Netherlands has already made great strides in cutting back the unnecessary use of antibiotics, but other countries have done little to date. The researchers believe follow-up research is essential given the growing problem of childhood obesity around the world. 

The full title of the publication is: ‘Early Life Antibiotic Exposure and Weight Development in Children: The KOALA Birth Cohort Study’.

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