Breast Milk May Boost IQ’s for Preemies Later in Life, Study Finds

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

According to a recent study, premature babies who were fed a diet of predominately breast milk were more likely to have higher IQ’s and better cognitive function at 7 years old than babies who weren’t.

The study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, followed 180 premature babies (defined as less than 30 weeks old) from birth until age 7. They found that those who were placed on a diet of at least 50 percent breast milk in the first 28 days of life had larger areas of “deep gray matter volume” in their brains — which is basically a fancy way of saying that they ended up having more highly developed cognitive abilities. In addition to having higher IQ’s, study researchers say that breastfed preemies also performed better when tested in the areas of mathematics, working memory, and motor function, which is all pretty amazing.

Needless to say, though, studies like this one — which loudly tout the benefits of breastfeeding over formula feeding — tend to be a bit polarizing within the parenting community. And it’s easy to see why: If a mom breastfed her baby, she might think this study is the best thing ever. But if breastfeeding didn’t work out for her, or she chose not to do it for personal reasons, the results may be downright irritating — as though they’re somehow a judgement of her parenting choices.

And that’s more than understandable. It’s hard to deny that breastfeeding is best for babies, but it’s not that easy for everyone to make it work, especially when there is so little good, available support out there. Plus, plenty of new moms are getting conflicting advice everywhere they turn, or rushing back to work as soon as they’ve finally gotten the hang of breastfeeding. All of that can certainly throw a wrench in things.

Still, preemie moms face even more challenges. Often, their babies are too young to nurse effectively, forcing moms who perhaps originally planned to breastfeed to pump right away — something that can be both difficult and daunting at first. Add that to the fact that many preemie babies are in the NICU for extended periods of time, and moms sometimes have limited opportunities to be near them, or to attempt breastfeeding. Plus, you definitely can’t underestimate the toll that stress can have on a mother’s milk supply.

Dr. Mandy Brown Belfort, lead researcher of the study, understands those challenges all too well. “Many mothers of preterm babies have difficulty providing breast milk for their babies, and we need to work hard to ensure that these mothers have the best possible support systems in place to maximize their ability to meet their own feeding goals,” said Belfort in a press release for the study.

Amen to that!

It’s also worth noting that the positive outcomes in this study didn’t require a diet of 100 percent breast milk — even producing half of that had positive results. So another big take-away here could be simply that preemie moms should do their personal best to provide breast milk for their babies if possible, but that any effort they make is commendable and awesome. (Donor breast milk is another option for preemie babies, and luckily, more and more hospitals have this option available.)

Other caveats to the study include the fact that no other aspects besides how these babies were fed were studied in relationship to their cognitive development. As Dr. Befort explains, “It’s also important to note that there are so many factors that influence a baby’s development, with breast milk being just one.”

At the end of the day, we all just want what’s best for our babies, and this is especially true for preemie moms. Yes, providing breast milk whenever possible has huge benefits. But it’s really hard to expect preemie moms to breastfeed when they often aren’t given enough resources and support to concentrate on breastfeeding during what are often really difficult times.

In fact, Dr. Befort framed this study as call-out to health professionals to better support moms of preemies so they can provide breast milk for their babies if they choose to.

“This [study] is not only important for moms, but also for hospitals, employers, and friends and family members, so that they can provide the support that’s needed during this time when mothers are under stress and working so hard to produce milk for their babies,” Dr. Befort shared.

To that I say, yes, yes, and more YES. It truly takes a village to support a new moms, especially preemie and NICU moms. They are some of the strongest, bravest, most kick-ass moms out there, and their efforts should be 100 percent supported — and never go unnoticed.

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