According to a University of Oxford research, breastfeeding is better than baby formula milk when it comes to long-term heart functions and structure in preterm-born babies.

Dr Adam Lewandowski, the lead author and scientist on the project has previously established in 2012 through research, that individuals born preterm have an increased left ventricular mass, a unique three dimensional left ventricular geometry and a clear reduction in functional parameters of systolic and diastolic nature.

This means that babies who are born before they are ought to grow up with thicker heart walls, smaller chambers and reduced cardiac functional capabilities.

The current research study report published in the journal, Pediatrics in its June 2016 issue by the same researcher, has also found that babies born preterm have reduced heart volumes and functions as opposed to those who were born full term.

However, the current research has found that the decrease in heart volume is lesser among people who have been exclusively fed breast milk compared to the baby formula milk, when born preterm.

Furthermore, researchers have observed that when a combination of both breast milk and formula milk was given to children, cardiac structure and function improved as the proportion of breast milk consumed by the individuals increased.

Dr Lewandowski said that even high quality formula milk may lack enzyme, growth factors, and antibodies found naturally in breast milk and research suggests that breast milk may help preterm-born children improve heart health even after inevitable developmental consequences they have already suffered.

A preterm baby is an infant born before 37 week of pregnancy and a full term pregnancy can last from 37 to 41 weeks.

Preterm births are the leading cause of infant mortality or death rates. In United States 1 out of 10 babies are born preterm.

This makes up nearly 10 % of all babies born. In practical terms, 10 % of the population can have potential heart issues and long term neurological disabilities.  Worldwide, nearly 15 million infants are born premature each year.

Infants grow throughout pregnancy. The last weeks of pregnancy are crucial as lungs, brain, and liver among other organs develop fully during this time period. Heart disease is not only an issue in infants but mothers giving birth early are also at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

In preterm births, mothers can often experience a blockage in preterm lactation. Normal milk production starts right after a baby is born. However early birth can affect milk production and reduce or eliminate it due to reasons like:

  • Incomplete mammary growth due to shortened pregnancy
  • Uncompleted preparation of mammary epithelium (breast tissue)
  • Stress, fatigue, fatigue and anxiety may be hindering milk production

In such scenarios, mothers may be taught effective milk production techniques like breast massage and simultaneous pumping of both breasts. Use of a high-quality breast pump and a supportive environment for the mother is also encouraged.

If milk production is still inefficient, children may be given donated breast milk especially if they are preterm and are at a high risk of preterm birth-associated health complications.

According to the breast feeding report card 2014, 79 % of mothers in the United States breast feed their children compared to the previous 75 % in 2008. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all babies (preterm and full term) should be fed breast milk exclusively, at least for the first six months of their lives.

Breastfeeding advantages can be: more intelligent children (higher IQ), lesser cases of diarrhea and constipation, a stronger immunological system, lesser cases of asthma, diabetes and obesity. Studies have shown that mothers who breast feed lose weight more quickly and are at a lower risk of ovarian and breast cancers.

The study at University of Oxford was a randomized control trial which recruited participants who were born preterm from another trial previously conducted on the effects of early diet on later cognitive or brain function.  A total of 926 participants were selected. The cohort of people was randomized into different groups based on breast milk and formula milk.

When approached for testing, a total of 102 people arrived at Oxford to get cardiovascular phenotyping. Out of the total, 30 individuals were exclusively fed human milk, 16 received exclusive formula milk while the remaining 46 received both formula and breast milk.

A group of 102 individuals not born preterm was also recruited to act as control for the study.

After a 12-hour overnight fast the participants were tested for blood pressure and anthropometric data. Blood samples were also collected.

Heart structures and function were deduced by cardiovascular magnetic resonance with the help of a 1.5-T Siemens Sonata Scanner (from Siemens Germany).

The results indicated that preterm born babies who were breast fed had increased left and right ventricular end-diastolic volume index with a probability of 0.04 (9.73 %) and less than 0.001 (18.2 %) respectively. The stroke volume index also increased for preterm born babies given breast milk at 9.79 %.

The study was financed through the British Heart Foundation project grant. Dr Lewandowski is also a recipient of funds from the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Program.