Brain growth and development, among many other crucial processes, are completed during the final months and weeks of pregnancy. Therefore, babies born weeks before their due date tend to have smaller, underdeveloped brains.
A new study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies 2016 meeting, showed that premature infans who were fed mostly breast milk during the first month of life have larger brains compared with babies whot were given little or no breast milk at all.
The researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggest that feeding premature babies at least half of their daily fluid intake in the form of breast milk within the first month, may protect them from neurological problems and psychiatric disorders later in life.
Effect of breast milk on the brain
Breast milk has been shown to be essential for the optimal growth and development of full-term babies, and is even more important for babies born prematurely.
The breast milk of a mother who gives birth prematurely will be different in the first few weeks. The body seems to know that the baby came too early, and produces richer milk to protect the baby against infections and provide more nutrients needed for its further development.
“The brains of babies born before their due dates usually are not fully developed,” said senior investigator Cynthia Rogers, MD, an assistant professor of child psychiatry who treats patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
“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. 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.”
Rogers and her team followed 77 premature babies cared for in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. They recorded how much breast milk the babies received during the first month of their lives, followed by MRI brain scans around the time they would have been born.
Erin Reynolds, a research technician in Rogers’ laboratory, reported, “As the amount of breast milk increased, so did a baby’s chances of having a larger cortical surface area. 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.”
Breast milk, the best nutrition for preterm infants
They plan to follow the same babies from the study through the first years of their lives. They want to see how they grow, focusing on their motor, cognitive and social development.The results look very promising, however Rogers noted that further research is needed to confirm the results.
“We want to see whether this difference in brain size has an effect on any of those developmental milestones,” Rogers said. “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.”
There is no doubt that breast milk will give premature infants the best possible start in life. Apart from the many advantages it has on the development of the baby, nursing will also provide them with much-needed skin to skin contact, which is very limited in an intensive care nursery.