Breast Milk May Equal Bigger Brains for Preemies

A new study shows preemies who were given more breast milk developed more brain tissue than those who weren't.
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My daughter was a preemie and I didn't breastfeed. I could go on to tell you all about her struggle to feed and her failure to thrive, about the way she screamed and cried and sometimes stopped breathing every time she tried to simultaneously suck and swallow. I could tell you about the way I wrestled with the decision to give her formula in order to maximize calories, and about how I later exclusively breastfed my son—and now he's the one who gets sick all the time.

Breastfeeding isn't for every mom or every baby, and that's something I've made peace with. We all do what we have to do.

If you are able to breastfeed your premature baby, there's some good news: According to a new study of 77 preterm infants in the NICU at St. Louis Children's Hospital, preemies who were fed mostly breast milk during the first month of life appear to have more robust brain growth than those who were not.

Preemies typically have smaller brains than full-term infants. So the researchers measured how much breast milk each baby was given while in the NICU, then conducted brain scans on their actual due dates. The findings? The preemies who received at least 50 percent breast milk had more brain tissue and cortical-surface area by their due dates than the ones who didn't.

"The brains of babies born before their due dates usually are not fully developed," said senior investigator Cynthia Rogers, MD. "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."

Keep in mind that this is a small study, and that the researchers admit more studies are needed. In the meantime, they plan to follow the babies in the study through their first several years of life, focusing on their motor, cognitive, and social developmental outcomes.

"We want to see whether this difference in brain size has an effect on any of those developmental milestones," Dr. Rogers said. "We wanted to see whether it was possible to detect the impact of breast milk on the brain this early in life and whether the benefits appeared quickly or developed over time."

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website holleeactmanbecker.com for more, and then follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld.

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