Giving birth prematurely is not something you plan for -- it just happens. As a parent, you just have to step up to the challenges of caring for a preemie, and one of the first issues that should be addressed is nutrition. It's an even more crucial factor in preemie babies as it greatly affects their development outside their mother's womb.
"Nurse your child back to health" -- if you're a parent to a preemie child, use this phrase as an inspiration. Neonatologists already know that breast milk is the best nutrition for babies, whether they are born at full-term or prematurely, but now a new study has found more concrete evidence that that breast milk promotes brain growth for preemie babies, which could help prevent neurological and psychological problems later in life.
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine found that preemie babies who were given breast milk more than half the time in their first month of life show more robust brain development compared to preemies who consumed significantly less breast milk. The study, which was presented at the Pediatric Academic Society (PAS), looked at preterm infants that were born ten weeks early and used brain scans taken at about the time each baby would have been born had they not arrived early.
"The brains of babies born before their due dates usually are not fully developed, 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,” senior study author Cynthia Rogers, M.D., assistant professor of child psychiatry who treats patients at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, said in a statement. "This is important because several other studies have shown a correlation between brain volume and cognitive development," she added.
Lead study author Erin Reynolds, a research technician in Rogers’ laboratory, said that as the amount of breast milk a baby consumed increased, so did the baby’s chances of having a larger cortical surface area. "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," she explains. Dr. Rogers adds that this may be related to intelligence, attention, or emotional regulation later in life.
The researchers will be further observing the babies in their first year of life and see how they grow and achieve motor, cognitive, and social milestones. They are hopeful that the data would help them determine the specific impacts of breast milk in a preemie baby’s brain development.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for all babies ages zero to six months. For preemies, breastfeeding and breast milk have also been linked to the prevention of blindness. Here are some tips to help moms of preemies breastfeed effectively:
Start expressing breast milk as soon as possible after the birth of your baby. The hospital and its neonatal intensive care unit can feed your baby your breast milk if he still needs to be incubated.
Practice skin-to-skin contact when you can while breastfeeding your baby. As much as possible, and with your doctor's guidance, hold your baby as often as you can even while he's being tube-fed.
Breastfeeding pillows work wonders for nursing a preemie baby. It can help you position your baby properly. You might need to experiment on a few postions.
If your baby's sucking is not yet well developed, learn how to cup feed or use a syringe (without the needle, of course) to feed your baby breast milk.
If your breast milk supply is low, you can ask for donations from your mommy friends. You can concentrate on increasing your supply without worrying that your baby isn't getting enough.
Patience is key. In itself, breastfeeding is a challenge -- more so, if your baby is a preemie. However, remember that a lot of women have successfully breastfed their preemies. It's not impossible.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. You can also learn a lot from the nurses who are trained to handle preemie babies. And make sure to surround yourself with family and loved one who support your breastfeeding journey.