A new study has found that preterm babies fed more breast milk in the first 28 days of life had larger deep nuclear gray matter volume and better IQs, academic achievement, memory, and motor function by age seven.
“Our data support current recommendations for using mother’s milk to feed preterm babies during their neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) hospitalization,” said Mandy Brown Belfort, M.D., lead researcher and a physician in the Department of Newborn Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“This is not only important for moms, but also for hospitals, employers, and friends and family members, so that they can provide the support that’s needed during this time when mothers are under stress and working so hard to produce milk for their babies.”
For the study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers followed 180 preterm infants from birth to age seven.
They determined the number of days infants received breast milk as more than 50 percent of their nutritional intake from birth to 28 days of life.
The researchers also examined data related to regional brain volumes measured by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at each baby’s term equivalent age and at seven years old. They also looked at cognitive and motor testing at age seven, including IQ, reading, mathematics, attention, working memory, language, and visual perception.
The findings show that infants who received predominantly breast milk on more days during their NICU hospitalization had larger deep nuclear gray matter volume, an area important for processing and transmitting neural signals to other parts of the brain. When they were seven, these children performed better in IQ, mathematics, working memory, and motor function tests.
Overall, breastfeeding correlated with better outcomes, including larger regional brain volumes at term equivalent and improved cognitive outcomes at age seven.
“Many mothers of preterm babies have difficulty providing breast milk for their babies, and we need to work hard to ensure that these mothers have the best possible support systems in place to maximize their ability to meet their own feeding goals,” Belfort said. “It’s also important to note that there are so many factors that influence a baby’s development, with breast milk being just one.”
Researchers note some limitations on the study, including that it was observational. Although they adjusted for factors such as differences in maternal education, some of the effects could possibly be explained by other factors that were not measured, such as greater maternal involvement in other aspects of infant care.
Belfort said future studies using other MRI techniques could provide more information about the specific ways in which human milk intake may influence the structure and function of the brain.
Source: Brigham and Women’s Hospital