During the first weeks of a premature baby's life, there are a number of things parents can do to boost his health, and one of the most important act is breastfeeding. Breast milk is not only the best nutrition for all babies, it is vital for preemies' brain development.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh studied MRI brain scans from 47 babies from a group known as the “Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort.” Born before 33 weeks gestation, the scans were taken when the preemies reached the term-equivalent age or around 40 weeks from conception.
They also collected information how the babies were fed while in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) — whether through breast or formula milk from the mother or a donor.
The study, published in the journal Neuroimage, found that infants who were exclusively fed breast milk for “at least three-quarters of the days they spent in the hospital showed improved brain connectivity.” Those who were given breast milk for longer showed the most significant improvement.
“Our findings suggest that brain development in the weeks after preterm birth is improved in babies who receive greater amounts of breast milk,” said Professor James Boardman, director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh.
Premature babies, those who arrive three weeks or more before the due date, need extra love and care from their parents. Although the survival rate of preemies has improved significantly in the past decade, parents still play a vital role in helping their babies improve their chances of survival, especially since preemies are at greater risk of having health problems early in life.
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Premature birth has been associated previously to an increased possibility of problems with learning and thinking skills later in life, which are thought to be linked to alterations in brain development, according to the researchers.
A similar study done in 2016 showed that the larger the amount of breast milk babies consumed, the chances of having a larger cortical surface in the brain also increased.
“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,” says lead study author Erin Reynolds. The researchers of the study add that this may be related to intelligence, attention, or emotional regulation later in life.
These two studies not only highlight the brain-boosting properties of breast milk, but it also shows that moms also need more support when it comes to providing breast milk to their preemie babies. “This may give their children the best chance of healthy brain development,” said Prof. Boardman.
Even after a baby’s stay in the NICU, it’s important that moms continue to provide breast milk to her little one. (Click here for baby care basics for your premature baby.) Infants benefit from breast milk’s life-saving properties such as antibodies, which may give baby’s immune system a boost, according to BabyCenter. Moms of preemies also produce milk that contains extra nutrients to help their babies grow and develop.
The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for all babies ages zero to six months.