Feeding premature babies mostly breast milk – irrespective of whether that came from the babies’ own mothers or donated by other women – during the first month of life appears to spur more robust brain growth, compared with babies given little or no breast milk, says a study.
“The brains of babies born before their due dates usually are not fully developed,” said senior investigator Cynthia Rogers from St. Louis Children’s Hospital in the US.
“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,” Rogers said.
“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 explained.
The findings are scheduled to be presented at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies, in Baltimore on May 3.
The study included 77 preterm infants. The researchers retrospectively looked to see how much breast milk those babies had received while being cared for in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in the US.
Then, the researchers conducted brain scans on those infants at about the time each would have been born had the babies not arrived early.
All of the babies were born at least 10 weeks early, with an average gestation of 26 weeks, or about 14 weeks premature. Because they are still developing, preemies typically have smaller brains than full-term infants.
In gauging the effects of breast milk on the babies’ brains, the researchers did not distinguish between milk that came from the babies’ own mothers and breast milk donated by other women. Rather, they focused on the influence of breast milk in general, first author Erin Reynolds, aresearch technician in Rogers’ laboratory, said.
“As the amount of breast milk increased, so did a baby’s chances of having a larger cortical surface area,” Reynolds 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,” Reynolds said.