Breastmilk feeding can improve brain development in premature infants

breastmilk feeding baby infant

It is known that breastmilk can bring many health benefits to babies. It can help baby fight off viruses and bacteria, lower the risk of having allergies or asthma, and boost the immune system.

Now researchers find another important reason to do breastmilk feeding: it can improve babies’ brain development, especially in premature infants. The finding is newly published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the USA, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia, University of Cambridge in the UK, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Australia, and University of Melbourne in Australia conducted the study.

They examined 180 infants born at < 30 weeks’ gestation or < 1250 grams birth weight. These infants were enrolled in the Victorian Infant Brain Studies cohort from 2001-2003.

Researchers examined the associations of breastmilk feeding after birth with brain development in these very premature infants. They calculated the days when infants received breastmilk as the main nutrition source during 0-28 days after birth.

They also measured these infants’ brain volumes, motor functions and cognitive functions (e.g., language, math, reading, memory, attention, visual perception, etc.) at 7 years of age.

The result showed that higher amount of breastmilk feeding in the first 28 days of life was associated with greater gray matter volume, higher IQ, better math skills, better memory, and better motor functions in these children.

Researchers suggest that many mothers of premature babies have difficulty providing breast milk for the infants. Therefore, support is needed to help these moms meet their feeding goals.

The finding also suggests that brain imaging technique, such as MRI, can be used to test early infants’ brain function and structure, and hence provide useful information about the relation between breastmilk feeding and brain development in early life stages.

Citation: Belfort MB, et al. (2016). Breast Milk Feeding, Brain Development, and Neurocognitive Outcomes: A 7-Year Longitudinal Study in Infants Born at Less Than 30 Weeks’ Gestation. The Journal of Pediatrics, published online. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.06.045.
Figure legend: This image is for illustrative purposes only.