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Preemies are at risk for long-term problems with thinking and learning. Pre-term birth is believed to affect the brain's white matter, which helps brain cells communicate with each other.
The researchers said helping mothers breastfeed after pre-term delivery may improve long-term outcomes.
"Our findings suggest that brain development in the weeks after preterm birth is improved in babies who receive greater amounts of breast milk," said researcher James Boardman. He's director of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
"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," he added in a university news release.
For the study, the researchers analyzed MRI brain scans of 47 preemies. All were born before 33 weeks' gestation and had scans, on average, 40 weeks from conception. The researchers noted whether the infants were fed formula or breast milk from either their mother or a donor while hospitalized in intensive care
Babies who were exclusively breastfed for at least 75 percent of their hospital stay had more brain connectivity, the study reported. The longer babies were breastfed, the more dramatic their brain changes, the researchers noted.
The study was published recently in the journal NeuroImage.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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