Early Consumption of Breastmilk Linked to Preemie Brain Growth

By Bri Ziganti

early consumption of breastmilk linked to preemie brain growth

Breastmilk, the human superfood, may have longer-reaching effects than purely growth during infancy.  A new study has linked the early consumption of breastmilk by preemies with significant brain growth.

Researchers began the study by looking at the recorded amount of breastmilk fed to 77 preemies during their stay in the NICU.  Each preemie was born at least 10 weeks early, with the average being about 14 weeks premature.  Then, they scanned the babies’ brains using an MRI at the time of their predicted due date (the date they would have been born had they not been premature).  They were hoping to find a correlation between the frequent, early consumption of breastmilk with an increase in brain growth at a faster rate than children who did not receive as much human milk.

The conclusion?  Preemies with diets consisting of at least 50 percent breastmilk developed more brain tissue and cortical-surface area by their original due dates than premature babies who ate significantly less breastmilk.

Why Does Early Consumption of Breastmilk Affect Brain Growth in Preemies?

One of the side-effects of premature birth is underdeveloped tissues, especially tissues that require the most energy to grow and maintain like the intestines and brain matter.  As a result, one of the most vital benchmarks a neonatologist looks for is quick weight gain and an improvement in suckling capabilities, so the baby can handle digesting more food without injuring themselves and finish developing their tissues.  Breastmilk is an obvious choice of nutrition for preemies because it’s typically gentler and easier to digest than formula.  However, breastmilk isn’t always available- preemie mothers often weren’t ready to start lactating when their pregnancies were cut short, so if the hospital can’t provide donor milk, preemies must use a formula substitute.  While formula is still a good choice for full-term babies, many doctors believe that replacing breastmilk with formula would be detrimental to the more delicate preemie stomach.  With this new research, it seems that breastmilk may do more than just prevent NEC.

“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,” explained Dr. Cynthia Rogers, an assistant professor of child psychiatry at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“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,” she said.

Interestingly, the researchers didn’t differentiate between expressed breastmilk from the preemies’ own mothers and donated breastmilk stores.  They were only interested in how breastmilk from any source influenced growth.

The paper’s first author, Dr. Erin Reynolds, explained their findings: “As the amount of breast milk increased, so did a baby’s chances of having a larger cortical surface area,” they 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.”

Though a full investigation will be needed to determine the long-term effects of breastmilk on preemie brain growth, the team is optimistic.

“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,” Dr. Rogers finished.

As these preemies age, the researchers will continue their observations, so they can determine whether the effects of early consumption of breastmilk will translate to better brain development in later childhood.  However, because all of the infants in the study were born premature, they cannot apply their research to full-term babies.

Researchers will present their findings today, May 3, at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in Baltimore.

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