Preterm infants fed breast milk within the first 28 days of life have better brain development and neurocognitive outcomes, finds a new study.

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Study findings support current suggested guidelines for using breast milk to feed preterm babies during hospitalization.

The study, led by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, followed 180 preterm infants from birth to 7 years old.

The results showed that the preterm babies that received more breast milk within the first 28 days of life had larger deep nuclear gray matter volume at full term and better IQs, academic achievements, memory, and motor function by age 7.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), breastfeeding rates are rising in the United States, and in 2011, 79 percent of newborns started to breastfeed. However, at 6 months, 49 percent were breastfeeding, and 27 percent at 12 months, which is below the recommended guidelines.

With the known health benefits of breastfeeding for infants, children, and mothers, the CDC say that it is a key strategy to support mothers in initiating and continuing breastfeeding through professional lactation support.

Mandy Brown Belfort, M.D., a researcher and physician in the Department of Newborn Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and lead author, says: “Our data support current recommendations for using mother’s milk to feed preterm babies during their neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) hospitalization.”

“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,” she adds.

Children who were born before 30 weeks’ gestation and enrolled in the Victorian Infant Brain Studies cohort from 2001-2003 were included in the analysis.

Breastfed babies were determined as those infants who received breast milk as more than 50 percent of their nutritional intake from birth to 28 days old. Regional brain volume data was measured by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at “full term,” as if the baby was born at 39-40 weeks of gestation, and at 7 years old.

Also observed by the team were cognitive measures of IQ, reading, mathematics, attention, working memory, language, visual perception, and motor testing at the age of 7.

Infants who were fed mostly breast milk on more days during NICU hospitalization had more nuclear gray matter volume – an area that processes and transmits neural signals to other brain areas – at term age equivalent.

By the age of 7, these same children were able to perform better in IQ, working memory, and motor function tests.

Findings from the study revealed that ingesting more breast milk correlated with better outcomes for preterm babies, larger regional brain volumes at full term, and improved cognitive ability at 7 years old.

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. It’s also important to note that there are so many factors that influence a baby’s development, with breast milk being just one.”

Mandy Brown Belfort, M.D.

According to Belfort, future studies by the team will revolve around using other MRI techniques to find out how human milk intake influences the structure and function of the brain.

Further research also needs to focus on how the role of breastfeeding differs from other types of maternal care and nurturing on the development of a preterm baby’s brain.

Read how the decrease in ear infections in babies could be due to breastfeeding.