Mothers who decide for no serious medical reasons not to breastfeed their babies should know that they are hindering their brain development, neurocognitive outcomes.
“Our data support current recommendations for using mother’s milk to feed preterm babies during their neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) hospitalization. This is not only important for moms, but also for hospitals, employers, and friends and family members, so that they can provide the support that’s needed during this time when mothers are under stress and working so hard to produce milk for their babies,” says Mandy Brown Belfort, MD, a researcher and physician in the Department of Newborn Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and lead author.
The study found that infants who received predominantly breast milk on more days during their NICU hospitalization had larger deep nuclear gray matter volume, an area important for processing and transmitting neural signals to other parts of the brain, at term equivalent age, and by age seven, performed better in IQ, mathematics, working memory, and motor function tests.
Overall, ingesting more human milk correlated with better outcomes, including larger regional brain volumes at term equivalent and improved cognitive outcomes at age 7.
“Many mothers of preterm babies have difficulty providing breast milk for their babies, and we need to work hard to ensure that these mothers have the best possible support systems in place to maximize their ability to meet their own feeding goals. It’s also important to note that there are so many factors that influence a baby’s development, with breast milk being just one,” says Belfort.