Feeding premature babies breast milk could reduce heart damage caused by an early birth, study finds
- Babies born before full-term – 37 weeks -are more at risk of heart problems
- Irish scientists have found breast milk can alleviate the problem
- It may work by regulating growth factors and boosting the immune system
Feeding premature babies breast milk could reduce heart damage caused by an early birth, scientists say.
Babies born before full-term – 37 weeks – are thought to have weaker hearts due to smaller chambers that help pump the blood.
But giving premature babies breast milk, instead of formula, could alleviate the problem, a review of evidence suggests.
The researchers believe breast milk can help regulate hormones and growth factors and strengthen the infant’s immune system, reducing inflammation.
About 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK every year – one in every 13. They are more likely to develop cardiovascular diseases as adults than their full term peers.
Feeding premature babies breast milk could reduce heart damage caused by an early birth, Irish scientists have found after reviewing evidence
One of the long-term health complications young adults born prematurely may have is unique heart characteristics.
These can include smaller heart chambers, relatively higher blood pressure and a disproportionate increase in muscle mass in the heart.
Lead author Professor Afif El-Khuffash, a paediatrician at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said: ‘It is becoming increasingly clear premature birth results in long term adverse cardiovascular effects with important clinical consequences.
‘There is a distinct lack of preventative and therapeutic interventions available to alleviate those effects.’
His international team including colleagues at the University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School wrote their review of evidence in the journal Pediatric Research.
One study compared 30 preterm-born adults who were assigned only human milk during their hospital with 16 others exclusively fed formula.
Detailed cardiovascular examinations, including MRI scans when they were aged 23 and 28, showed their heart chambers were smaller than normal.
But the difference in size was less pronounced in the human milk group, suggesting a potentially protective effect for heart structure.
It is not clear exactly how the breast milk improves heart health, but scientists believe it may be to do with antibodies passed from the mother to baby, strengthening a premature baby’s weak immune system.
They also said breast milk contains a high amount of growth factors, enzymes, antibodies, and stem cells that may directly help the heart grow, which are not found in infant formulas.
Prof El-Khuffash, who is also consultant neonatologist at The Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, said: ‘The current evidence comes from observational studies and highlights the strong link between early breast milk administrations and improvement in long-term heart health, but it lacks concrete mechanistic explanations.’
Identifying the key components within breast milk that result in improved heart health could pave the way for better treatment.
Added Prof El-Khuffash: ‘More studies on the composition of breast milk could make clear exactly what causes these health benefits, which could in turn lead to better treatment options.’
His team is continuing to study the effects in very premature infants by using novel scans to measure heart function.
They hope to demonstrate that early breast milk exposure in premature infants can lead to significant improvements in heart function over the first two years of age.
It also adds to the host of benefits of feeding babies ‘the natural way’ – providing the most vulnerable infants ‘the best start in life’.
NHS guidance advises that babies are exclusively fed breast milk for the first six months of their life.
Britain has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world, despite repeated Government campaigns designed to encourage women.