Breast is best: Pre-term MRI suggests

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  • Published: Sep 1, 2016
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Breast is best: Pre-term MRI suggests

A month of milk

Breast Milk Feeding, Brain Development, and Neurocognitive Outcomes: A 7-Year Longitudinal Study in Infants Born at Less Than 30 Weeks' Gestation

Pre-term babies given breast milk for at least the first 28 days of life had larger deep nuclear gray matter volume, as revealed by magnetic resonance imaging at age seven. They also had higher IQs, better academic achievements, memory, and motor function by that age than those who had not, according to a recent study.

A new study that tracked 180 infants born prematurely from birth to age seven years has perhaps demonstrated once more that "breast is best". Data on gray matter volume at actual term age compared with that at 7 years old in two groups of infants, those fed breast milk in the first month or so of life and those who were fed formula milk show putatively important differences suggest findings published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

"Our data support current recommendations for using mother's milk to feed pre-term babies during their neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) hospitalization. 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," explains Mandy Brown Belfort. Belfort is a researcher and physician in the Department of Newborn Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts and lead author on the research paper. She worked with colleagues at Murdoch Children's Research Institute and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, in Melbourne, the University of Melbourne, Australia, and the University of Cambridge, UK.

Overall outcomes

The team studied infants who had been born earlier than 30 weeks of more usual 40-week gestation period. The children were enrolled in the Victorian Infant Brain Studies cohort from 2001-2003. The team worked out the number of days that infants received breast milk as more than 50 percent of their nutritional intake from birth to 28 days of life. They also examined MRI data on regional brain volumes measured at each baby's term equivalent age and at seven years old, and then looked for correlations with cognitive and motor skills.

All of the babies who were fed mostly breast milk on more days during their NICU hospitalization than not had larger deep nuclear gray matter volume, which is an area of the brain important for processing and transmitting neural signals to other parts of the brain. The volume was larger at term equivalent age and by age seven. The team reports that overall better outcomes were seen in the breastfed pre-term infants.

Confounding adjustments

"Many mothers of pre-term 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 maximize their ability to meet their own feeding goals," Belfort says. "It's also important to note that there are so many factors that influence a baby's development, with breast milk being just one." Indeed, the team points out that there are limitations to their research in that regard not least that the study is an observational one. They did, of course, adjust for other confounding factors such as differences in maternal education but nevertheless some of the effects they saw might be explained by other factors that were not measured, such as greater maternal involvement in other aspects of infant care.

Belfort explains that the next step will be to use data from different MRI techniques to investigate whether nutrients and other factors from breast milk might influence the structure and function of the developing brain. The researchers also point out that additional work to follow is now also needed to untangle the role of breastfeeding from other types of maternal care and nurturing on development of the pre-term baby's brain.

Related Links

J Paediatr 2016, online: "Breast Milk Feeding, Brain Development, and Neurocognitive Outcomes: A 7-Year Longitudinal Study in Infants Born at Less Than 30 Weeks' Gestation"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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