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Premature babies benefit from breast milk, study says


Infants fed human milk fortified-in-hospital developed comparably to those fed infant formula

Premature infants fed breast milk made developmental gains equal to or greater than those fed formula specially designed for low-birth-weight infants, an international study finds.

"Definitely, appropriately fortified breast milk is the feeding of choice for these premature, low-birth-weight babies," says U of T nutritional sciences professor Deborah O’Connor, lead author of a study by Canadian, U.S., U.K. and Chilean researchers in the October Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition.

The study confirmed previous findings that premature infants grow more slowly on human milk than on nutrient-enriched premature formula, she says. Nevertheless, the development of premature babies fed human milk fortified in-hospital at least until term-corrected age (the day they should have been born) was comparable to or better than that of premature babies fed premature infant formula. This development was especially true in areas such as visual acuity, although further study is needed to confirm this.

"Growth is one yardstick of a premature baby’s progress but developmental markers such as visual, motor and cognitive skills are also important," says O’Connor, director of clinical dietetics at The Hospital for Sick Children.

The study compared the growth and development of 463 premature infants under four pounds at birth in the U.S., the U.K. and Chile who, based on their hospitals’ existing practices, were fed either breast milk (which was pumped, then mixed with additional nutrients in-hospital) or nutrient-enriched formulas or a combination of the two. After hospital discharge, most of the infants received unfortified breast milk. Their progress was tracked until they reached the equivalent of 12 to14 months.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has advised since 1998 that fortified breast milk is appropriate for premature babies in hospital, says O’Connor. She believes it may also benefit them after hospital discharge. The data analysed in this study was collected as part of an earlier trial funded by Abbott Laboratories.


Professor Deborah O’Connor, Department of Nutritional Sciences; email: deborah_l.o’

U of T Public Affairs, ph: (416) 978-5948; email:

Jessica Whiteside | University of Toronto
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