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Breastmilk supports premature babies’ heart development, researchers say

Premature babies who are fed their own mother’s breastmilk benefit from improved heart function, a new study has shown.

Those born prematurely are more at risk of cardiovascular problems and of dying from cardiovascular disease. Their hearts are known to have unique traits linked to reduced heart function.

However, the latest study from RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences in Ireland demonstrates how exclusive breast milk consumption in a premature baby’s early months is linked to a normalisation of some of these unique traits.

The study, involving 80 infants, is the first of its kind to show how being fed their mother’s own breastmilk can improve a baby’s cardiac function, approaching the levels of healthy babies born at full-term.

Researchers reported that premature babies who were given breastmilk in their first few weeks had greater left and right heart function and structure with lower lung pressures and greater right heart response to stress at age one, compared to premature infants who had more formula.

Study lead Professor Afif EL-Khuffash, Clinical Professor of Paediatrics at RCSI and Consultant Neonatologist at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, said: “This study provides the first evidence of an association between early postnatal nutrition in preterm-born infants and heart function over the first year of age, and adds to the already known benefits of breast milk for infants born prematurely.

“Preterm infants have abnormal heart function. However, those who are fed their mother’s own milk demonstrate recovery of their heart function to levels comparable to healthy term born infants. Preterm infants fed formula do not demonstrate this recovery.”

The study has been published in JAMA Network Open.

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