The Big Benefit Breast Milk May Have for Premies

Sep 24, 2018 at 11:44 a.m. ET
premature baby in incubator
Image: Blend Images ERproductions Ltd/Getty Images.

They say, "Breast is best," and in most cases, it is. In fact, the benefits of breast milk are well-documented. However, a recent study — conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh and published in the journal NeuroImage — found that breast milk may be particularly beneficial to premature babies.

More: The Benefits of Breastfeeding — for You, Not Just the Baby

In fact, breast milk may have a substantial impact on their brain development.

The study analyzed the brain scans of 47 babies who were born before 33 weeks. And while breast milk consumption varied, researchers found the babies who had the most breast milk — i.e., who consumed breast milk exclusively for three-quarters of their hospital stay or more — showed improved brain connectivity and function.

Professor James Boardman, director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh and one of the lead researchers on the study, said in a statement that these "findings suggest that brain development in the weeks after preterm birth is improved in babies who receive greater amounts of breast milk." As such, "mothers of pre-term babies should be supported to provide breast milk while their baby is in neonatal care — if they are able to and if their baby is well enough to receive milk — because this may give their children the best chance of healthy brain development."

Of course, not every person who has given birth can breastfeed. Some mothers cannot produce enough milk to adequately care for their child and others simply shouldn't due to drugs, medications or other medical conditions. However, the study found that donor breast milk worked just as well, and there are donor programs like the Human Milk Banking Association of North America specifically designed to help premature babies. 

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That said, Boardman noted that while breast milk is hugely beneficial to premies, additional research is necessary: "This study highlights the need for more research to understand the role of early life nutrition for improving long-term outcomes for pre-term babies."

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