Premature babies who are breastfed during the first month after birth may have higher intelligence quotient (IQ) later in life, a new study has claimed.
The study, which followed 180 pre-term infants from birth to age seven, found that babies who were fed more breast milk within the first 28 days of life had larger volumes of certain regions of the brain at term equivalent and had better IQ, academic achievement, working memory and motor function.
“Our data support current recommendations for using mother’s milk to feed preterm babies during their neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) hospitalisation,” said Mandy Brown Belfort from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the US.
“This is not only important for moms, but also for hospitals, employers, and friends and family members, so that they can provide the support that’s needed during this time when mothers are under stress and working so hard to produce milk for their babies,” Ms Belfort said.
Researchers studied infants born before 30 weeks gestation that were enrolled in the Victorian Infant Brain Studies cohort from 2001-2003.
They determined the number of days that infants received breast milk as more than 50 per cent of of their nutritional intake from birth to 28 days of life.
Researchers also examined data related to regional brain volumes measured by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at each baby’s term equivalent age and at seven years old, and also looked at cognitive (IQ, reading, mathematics, attention, working memory, language, visual perception) and motor testing at age seven.
The findings show that, across all babies, infants who received predominantly breast milk on more days during their NICU hospitalisation had larger deep nuclear grey matter volume, an area important for processing and transmitting neural signals to other parts of the brain, at term equivalent age, and by age seven, performed better in IQ, mathematics, working memory and motor function tests.
Overall, ingesting more human milk correlated with better outcomes, including larger regional brain volumes at term equivalent and improved cognitive outcomes at age seven.
“Many mothers of preterm babies have difficulty providing breast milk for their babies, and we need to work hard to ensure that these mothers have the best possible support systems in place to maximise their ability to meet their own feeding goals.”
“It’s also important to note that there are so many factors that influence a baby’s development, with breast milk being just one,” said Ms Belfort.
The findings were published in The Journal of Pediatrics.