New Study Finds The Fascinating Way Breast Milk Can Benefit Preemies Later In Life

by Vanessa Taylor

Breast milk continues to amaze people with its numerous benefits for both babies and mothers. So as medical professionals continue to explore its advantages, it's becoming clear that breast milk is capable of doing a lot more than you might assume. In a recent study, researchers found that breast milk can help benefit preemies with their learning and thinking skills later in life.

Premature birth covers a wide spectrum. According to the Mayo Clinic, a premature birth is one that takes place more than three weeks before the baby's estimated due date. Premature births are categorized as, according to the Mayo Clinic: late preterm, between 34 and 36 weeks; moderately preterm, born between 32 and 34 weeks; very preterm, born at less than 32 weeks; and extremely preterm, born at or before 25 weeks.

Although most premature births are late preterm, as noted by the Mayo Clinic, they are still open to complications. Many people focus on physical complications — what is immediately visible. That is important to talk about, but as noted by March of the Dimes, premature birth can also lead to long-term intellectual and developmental disabilities. But, there may be one way to better brain development.

In the past, studies have connected preterm birth to changes in brain structure, including the maturation of both grey and white matter, as noted by Science Direct. White matter is essentially the brain tissue that helps your brain cells communicate; as outlined by WebMD, it helps you to think fast, walk straight, and keeps you from falling.

Because a baby's brain is still developing, babies are extremely vulnerable. As Science Direct noted, preterm babies who survive are at a greater risk of brain damage and behavioral impairments, both in childhood and later in life. Inspired by this past research, scientists at the University of Edinburgh conducted a study to look at brain development when babies are fed breast milk rather than formula, according to PsychCentral.

Researchers conducted their study by examining MRI brain scans from 47 babies, according to PsychCentral. The babies were born before 33 weeks gestation, so moderately preterm, but the scans took place when they reached "term equivalent age," as PsychCentral noted. Essentially, about 40 weeks from conception.

For their study, according to EurekAlert, researchers took down information about whether the infants had been fed formula or breast milk, either from their mother or a donor, while in intensive care. They found that babies who exclusively received breast milk for at least three-quarters of the time they spent in the hospital showed improve brain connectivity.

This finding helps shed light on the importance of really understanding early nutrition and its long-term effects. Professor James Boardman, Director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh said, according to EurekAlert:

Our findings suggest that brain development in the weeks after preterm birth is improved in babies who receive greater amounts of breast milk... Mothers of pre-term babies should be supported to provide breast milk while their baby is in neonatal care — if they are able to and if their baby is well enough to receive milk — because this may give their children the best chance of healthy brain development.

For moms who can't breastfeed, there are donor programs like the Human Milk Banking Association of North America that work to donate breast milk primarily to preterm babies. And for those who are interested and able, women can donate breast milk to babies who need it, like this mom who has donated more than 15,000 ounces, as Inside Edition reported.

Breastfeeding isn't for everyone, for a variety of reasons, and all of those are OK. There's no shaming moms who feed their babies using formula. But, this new research, along with donation programs, can help offer support and comfort to new parents going through the stressful process of caring for a preemie.