Breastfeeding is important for the health of mothers and their babies. Not breastfeeding has been associated with many poorer health outcomes for babies, such as increased risk of infection, poorer cognitive development, SIDS, and obesity; it has also been linked to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer for mothers. For premature babies, given their increased vulnerability and immaturity, breastmilk is perhaps of even greater importance.
Previous research has shown that lack of breastmilk for premature babies results in poorer cognitive function and increased risk of necrotising enterocolitis (a disease characterised by part of the bowel becoming necrotic or dying). Now, recent research indicates that breastmilk might be important for the long term heart structure and function of premature babies.
Breastmilk Important For The Hearts Of Premature Babies
Between 1982 and 1985, 926 premature babies took part in a randomised, controlled trial of postnatal milk-feeding regimens across 5 different UK centres. These premature babies were randomly assigned to one of two groups: they were fed either with breastmilk donated by unrelated lactating women, or with nutrient-enriched formulas.
This new study followed up 102 individuals from the original trial, who are now adults in their thirties. Thirty of these individuals had been randomised to be fed exclusively human milk and 16 to be fully formula-fed. As a comparison group, another 102 adults (also in their thirties), who were born at full term, were recruited.
As expected, it was found that adults who had been born prematurely had reduced heart volume and poorer heart function, compared with those who had been born at full term.
It was also found that adults who had been born prematurely, and exclusively (definition of ‘exclusive’ unable to be found at this time) fed breastmilk as babies had better heart volume and function than those who had been formula-fed.
In addition, among adults who had been born prematurely and mixed fed as babies (i.e. fed a combination of breastmilk and formula), those who consumed more breastmilk than formula were found to have better heart structure and function as adults.
Even after the researchers analysed the results to take into account other possible confounding factors that might have affected heart volume and function, breastfeeding and the amount of breastmilk in the diet were still clearly associated with better heart volume and function, compared with formula feeding.
According to one of the researchers, Dr. Adam Lewandowski, of the Cardiovascular Clinical Research Facility at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom: “Even the best baby formula lacks some of the growth factors, enzymes and antibodies that breast milk provides to developing babies. These results show that even in people whose premature birth has inevitably affected their development, breastfeeding may be able to improve heart development”.
This study further highlights the importance of breastmilk for premature babies, as well as the need for accessible breastmilk banks for premature babies.