Premature babies show better brain development when fed breast milk rather than formula, according to a new study.
Premature birth has been linked to an increased possibility of problems with learning and thinking skills in later life, which are thought to be linked to alterations in brain development, according to researchers at the University of Edinburgh.
Previous studies have shown that pre-term birth is associated with changes in the part of the brain’s structure that helps brain cells communicate with one another, known as white matter.
For their study, researchers studied MRI brain scans from 47 babies from a study group known as the Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort.
The babies were born before 33 weeks gestation. Scans took place when they reached term-equivalent age, an average of 40 weeks from conception, the researchers reported.
The researchers also collected information about how the infants had been fed while in intensive care — either formula milk or breast milk from the mother or a donor.
The study found that babies who exclusively received breast milk for at least three-quarters of the days they spent in hospital showed improved brain connectivity.
The effects were greatest in babies who were fed breast milk for a greater proportion of their time spent in intensive care, the researchers discovered.
“Our findings suggest that brain development in the weeks after preterm birth is improved in babies who receive greater amounts of breast milk,” said Professor James Boardman, director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh.
“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,” he concluded.
The study was published in the journal NeuroImage.
Source: University of Edinburgh
Photo: The data suggest that brain connections in preterm babies are improved with greater amounts of breast milk in the weeks after birth. Credit: Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory, the University of Edinburgh.