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Breastfeeding premature babies protects them from infection

Now women have another reason to breastfeed their newborns. It can protect them, especially the ones born prematurely, from infections, claims a recent study.

health and fitness Updated: Jul 26, 2016 13:47 IST
Giving very-low-birth-weight premature infants a manufactured form of lactoferrin can virtually eliminate the germ that causes a staph infection known as staphylococcus epidermidis.
Giving very-low-birth-weight premature infants a manufactured form of lactoferrin can virtually eliminate the germ that causes a staph infection known as staphylococcus epidermidis.(Shutterstock)

Now women have another reason to breastfeed their newborns. It can protect them, especially the ones born prematurely, from infections, claims a recent study.

University of Missouri School of Medicine researchers found that a manufactured form of lactoferrin, a naturally occurring protein in breast milk, can help protect premature infants from a type of staph infection.

Read: Breastfeeding provides kids immunity to liver disease in adolescence

“Babies born with low levels of protective intestinal bacteria are at an increased risk of devastating and sometimes deadly infections,” said lead author Michael Sherman. “Our study found that giving very-low-birth-weight premature infants a manufactured form of lactoferrin can virtually eliminate the germ that causes a staph infection known as staphylococcus epidermidis.”

The researchers studied the immune systems of 120 premature infants in the neonatal intensive care units at MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital and the University of Southern California Children’s Hospital Los Angeles between July 2009 and January 2012. Infants in the trial weighed between 1 pound, 10 ounces, and 3 pounds, 4 ounces, at birth. Sixty of the infants received lactoferrin via a feeding tube twice a day for 28 days to simulate receiving mother’s milk while nursing.

To understand the protein’s role in the development of protective intestinal bacteria, the researchers examined fecal matter of the infants. The researchers found that germs responsible for the colonization of staph infection were virtually eliminated in the newborns who received lactoferrin.

“These germs are the most common cause of in-hospital bloodstream infections in premature babies, causing up to 50% of infections,” Sherman said. “As physicians, we’ve had limited knowledge of how lactoferrin affects the development of protective intestinal bacteria. Our study shows that it can modify germs in the bowel of infants, and those germs can protect premature babies from staph infections.”

Read: Breastfed kids are brighter and well-behaved

As part of the study, lactoferrin was provided to the patients at no cost. According to Sherman, lactoferrin can cost an estimated $25 to $500 per dose, though an infection can extend an infant’s hospital stay by 10 to 14 days at a cost of $40,000 to $56,000.

Though it is too early to recommend lactoferrin as a standard treatment protocol in NICUs across the country, the researchers say more research could shed light on its role in preventing infections.

“These vulnerable babies need all the support they can get to fight off infections,” Sherman said. “Our results justify the need for a large-scale trial of lactoferrin, as well as its counterpart derived from cow milk, bovine lactoferrin.”

The study is published in Journal of Pediatrics.

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