Feeding premature babies breast milk during the first month of life promotes brain growth, compared with babies given little or no breast milk.

A study of preterm infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, researchers found that preemies whose daily diets were at least 50 percent breast milk had more brain tissue and cortical-surface area by their due dates than premature babies who consumed significantly less breast milk.

“The brains of babies born before their due dates usually are not fully developed,” said senior investigator Cynthia Rogers, MD, an assistant professor of child psychiatry who treats patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

“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. 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.”

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 NICU. 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.

First author Erin Reynolds, a research 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.”

Further investigation is needed to determine specifically how breast milk affects the brain and what is present in the milk that seems to promote brain development.

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  • Premature babies are gavaged or tube feed fed as they do not have the strength to suck & feed. Life isn’t easy & situations like this can be stressful but sometimes we give up too easy. Research like this highlights the benefits to persevere with breastfeeding. AND yes I did have a premmie baby


  • Do they really need to keep researching the benefits of breastfeeding? Don’t we all know by now that breast is best!


  • I always find research findings like this amazing. The pressure of doing this for premature babies only adds to pressure and stress these parents are already under.


  • When a baby is premature, is it a lot more difficult to breastfeed him than when he’s full term?

    • Some pre-term babies are unable to suck strongly enough to drink from the Mum’s breasts. They are sometimes tube fed. I know a Mum whose baby was supposedly premature (she was obviously given the wrong due date), the Mum was in labour for over 24 hours before it was decided that the baby was way too big for to give birth naturally and had to have an emergency c-section. She was unable to breastfeed after the first feed. She was told she went into shock for longer than expected and that may well have been the cause.

      • Thanks for your answer. Not being strong enough to suck properly can be a problem indeed, at least at the beginning. I imagine it can be quite frustrating for the mother who’d love to breastfeed. And maybe after some time, when the baby is ready, the mother has lost her milk.
        I guess a lot depends also on how much premature the baby is.


  • I think articles like this can devestate new mums. Imagine being distressed having a preterm baby, you try to create a bond and breastfeed with your baby but its just not happening…and then you read an article telling you this.
    PND anyone?


  • I was unable to breast feed for more than five days, so after reading this article I’m so glad my baby was full term.


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