OCT 04, 2018 7:26 AM PDT

Breast Milk is Brain Food for Preemies

A due date for a baby represents great hope to parents and families. Any due date is an educated guess, and some babies arrive a little early or a little late, depending on the pregnancy. When a baby comes too early, there can be health and developmental issues.

It’s not just size, preemies are sometimes tiny, but it’s also about organ development. The heart, lungs, and brain are developing at record speed in the later stages of pregnancy. New research from the University of Edinburgh shows that babies born prematurely can benefit significantly from being fed breast milk instead of infant formula.

It’s difficult, however, for new mothers to provide breast milk in a neonatal intensive care setting. Premature birth has an impact on the mother as well, and milk supply can be a problem, so many times infants will be given formula. The team at Edinburgh found that while it’s not always possible, every effort should be made to provide babies with breast milk.

The study, which included 47 infants from the Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort, included brain scans of babies who had been born before 33 weeks gestation and who had spent time in the intensive care ward. The scans were taken when the babies reached an age equivalent to full term, which is 40 weeks after conception. Along with the scans, information on what the babies were fed during the time spent in the NICU was also analyzed. Concerning brain development, it’s the white matter of the brain where premature infants are the most vulnerable. White matter contains the cells in the brain that facilitate neural communication and where thinking and learning skills happen later in life. Any disruptions could have long-lasting consequences.

Babies in the cohort were formula-fed in cases where breastfeeding was not possible and breastfed, with either their mother’s milk or donor breastmilk. When looking at the brain scans the babies who were fed exclusively with breast milk for at least three-quarters of their NICU stay had better connectivity in the white matter of the brain than babies who did not receive breast milk. Professor James Boardman is the Director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh where the study was conducted. He explained, "Our findings suggest that brain development in the weeks after preterm birth is improved in babies who receive greater amounts of breast milk. This study highlights the need for more research to understand the role of early life nutrition for improving long-term outcomes for pre-term babies. Mothers of pre-term babies should be supported to provide breast milk while their baby is in neonatal care -- if they are able to and if their baby is well enough to receive milk -- because this may give their children the best chance of healthy brain development."

While there are many factors involved in caring for premature infants, and it’s not always possible for a baby to have breastmilk, the results of this study certainly make a good case for exhausting every effort to support breastfeeding, especially in children born early. The video clip below has more information.

Sources: University of Edinburgh, Journal Neuroimage

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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