Premature baby

Breast milk consumption improves heart health in premature babies

  • Research

A recent study from RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences is the first of its kind to demonstrate the beneficial effect of breast milk consumption on cardiovascular health and early cardiovascular development in premature infants.

Children and adults who were born preterm are known to have unique cardiac traits such as reduced biventricular volume, shorter length, lower systolic and diastolic function and a disproportionate increase in muscle mass.

This results in impaired heart function, significantly lower than that of healthy infants who are born at term, and increased risk of cardiovascular disorders. This dysfunction is detectable at hospital discharge and persists throughout their adolescence.

Published in JAMA Network Open, the study shows that exclusive breast milk consumption in the first months after birth is associated with a near normalisation of some of these traits.

Premature infants exposed to a high proportion of their mother's own milk during the first weeks after delivery had enhanced left and right heart function and morphology with lower lung pressures. They also had an improved right heart response to stress at one year of age compared to preterm infants who had a higher intake of formula, with all measures approaching those seen in term-born healthy children. Preterm infants fed formula do not experience the same favorable changes.

These findings were apparent before discharge from the hospital and persisted up to a year of age (the duration of follow-up).

The research was led by Professor Afif EL-Khuffash, Clinical Professor of Paediatrics at RCSI and Consultant Neonatologist at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Oxford, Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Washington University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School.

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.