Feeding premature babies mostly breast milk during the first month of their life boosts brain growth, a new study has found.
Studying preterm infants at St Louis Children’s Hospital in US, the researchers found that preemies whose daily diets were at least 50% breast milk had more brain tissue and cortical-surface area by their due dates than premature babies who consumed significantly less breast milk.
“The brains of babies born before their due dates usually are not fully developed,” said Cynthia Rogers, assistant professor at the Washington University.
“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,” said Rogers, who also treats patients at St Louis Children’s Hospital. “With MRI scans, we found that babies fed more breast milk had larger brain volumes,” she said.
The study included 77 preterm infants. The researchers retrospectively looked to see how much breast milk those babies had received. Then, the researchers conducted brain scans on those infants at about the time each would have been born had the babies not arrived early. All of the babies were born at least 10 weeks early, with an average gestation of 26 weeks, or about 14 weeks premature. Because they are still developing, preemies typically have smaller brains than full-term infants.
Gauging the effects of breast milk on the babies’ brains, the researchers did not distinguish between milk that came from the babies’ own mothers and breast milk donated by other women, said Erin Reynolds, a research technician in Rogers’ laboratory. Rather, they focused on the influence of breast milk in general. “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,” he said.
Preterm birth is a leading cause of neurologic problems in children and has been linked to psychiatric disorders later in childhood. Researchers plan to follow the babies in the study through their first several years of life to see how they grow, focusing on their motor, cognitive and social development. As the babies get older, the researchers believe they will be able to determine the effects of early exposure to breast milk on later developmental outcomes. “Neonatologists already believe breast milk is the best nutrition for preterm infants,” Rogers said. “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,” she said.