Breastmilk is important for premature babies for many reasons.
For example, lack of breastmilk increases the risk of necrotising enterocolitis (a potentially fatal complication of prematurity whereby part of the bowel dies), and sepsis (blood infection) in premature babies.
Breastmilk is a living fluid which changes during the course of a breastfeed, and also from day one, to week one, to month one, and so on.
A mother’s breastmilk is made as required to meet the needs of her baby, depending on her baby’s age and needs at the time.
For example, breastmilk made by mothers who’ve given birth to premature babies differs from breastmilk made by mothers who’ve given birth to term babies.
Breastmilk, Premature Babies and Brain Development
Babies Fed Breastmilk Have Larger Brains
The importance of breastmilk for the brain development of premature babies has been further reinforced by recent research. An abstract of a recent study, ‘Effects of breast milk consumption in the first month of life on early brain development in premature infants', was presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies meeting in Baltimore in May 2016. This study of 77 premature babies found that premature babies who were fed mostly breastmilk have larger brains by their due dates when compared with premature babies fed small amounts of breastmilk, or none.
“The brains of babies born before their due dates usually are not fully developed,” said senior investigator Cynthia Rogers, MD, an assistant professor of child psychiatry, who treats patients at St. Louis Children's Hospital. “But breast milk has been shown to be helpful in other areas of development, so we looked to see what effect it might have on the brain. With MRI scans, we found that babies fed more breast milk had larger brain volumes. This is important because several other studies have shown a correlation between brain volume and cognitive development”.
The study focused on the influence of breastmilk (mother’s own breastmilk or donated breastmilk) on the brain development of premature babies. A dose response was found, with the brain volume being larger when larger breastmilk volumes were consumed.
“As the amount of breast milk increased, so did a baby’s chances of having a larger cortical surface area”, Reynolds said. “The cortex is the part of the brain associated with cognition, so we assume that more cortex will help improve cognition as the babies grow and develop”.
The researchers involved in this study plan to follow the babies in the study throughout their first seven years of life. In this way, they will be able to determine whether the early consumption of breastmilk affects later growth, and motor, cognitive and social developmental outcomes.
“We want to see whether this difference in brain size has an effect on any of those developmental milestones”, Rogers said. “Neonatologists already believe breast milk is the best nutrition for preterm infants. We wanted to see whether it was possible to detect the impact of breast milk on the brain this early in life and whether the benefits appeared quickly or developed over time”.
Breastmilk isn’t just important for the brain development of premature babies. It’s also important for babies born at term. For more information, read BellyBelly’s article Breastfeeding And IQ: Does It Make A Difference?