Researchers at the Edinburgh University analysed Magnetic Resonance Images (MRI) scans of about 50 premature babies who were born before 33 weeks gestation.
Scans were conducted on their brains when they were around seven weeks old – roughly 40 weeks after conception.
The babies who exclusively received breast milk for at least three-quarters of the days they spent in hospital showed improved brain connectivity compared with others.
The findings of the Scottish scientists published in the journal NeuroImage add to findings from other researches which showed that breast feeding babies ‘the natural way’ has a lot of benefits, including giving even the most vulnerable premature babies ‘the best start in life’.
Babies born before 37 weeks are often thought to have worse learning and thinking skills as adults because of alterations in the structure of a crucial part of their brain. The scientists found giving premature babies breast milk could alleviate their reduced brain connectivity.
Professor James Boardman, study co-author, said the findings suggest brain development in the weeks after preterm birth is improved in babies who receive greater amounts of breast milk.
“This study highlights the need for more research to understand the role of early life nutrition for improving long-term outcomes for pre-term babies. 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,” said Professor James Boardman.
Professor Boardman said this would give their children ‘the best chance of healthy brain development.’
“This latest report delivers valuable evidence to support breast milk feeding for even the tiniest, most vulnerable premature babies, to give them the best start in life,” said Sarah Brown, president and trustee of Theirworld, which funded the research.
She said an ‘immense debt of gratitude’ is owed to the families who allowed their children to take part in the study to benefit other premature babies in the future.
Before now, several studies have shown that breast milk contains antibodies passed on from the mother, which boost a baby’s immune system and help it fight infections and viruses.
There is also evidence that breastfed babies have higher IQs and are less at risk of obesity – because formula milk is higher in fat. Breastfeeding is also deemed beneficial for the mother because it enables her to bond with the newborn.