Breastfeeding Helps Babies' Brainstems Develop Faster

Findings of Children's Hospital at Strong study to be published in Pediatrics

August 04, 2000

Soon-to-be published research provides additional evidence that breast milk is more beneficial to babies than commercially made formula. The research, done at Children's Hospital at Strong, will be published in the August issue of the journal Pediatrics, to be released tomorrow.

Physicians studied infants born between 28 and 32 weeks gestation, comparing brainstem maturation between infants fed breast milk and those fed commercial formula. They measured brainstem auditory-evoked responses, a useful measure of brainstem function and maturation during early development.

The findings indicate that infants fed breast milk have faster brainstem maturation, which may positively affect a variety of brain functions such as control of breathing.

"Not all mothers are able to breastfeed, but we encourage everyone who can to do so," says Ronnie Guillet, M.D., senior author of the study and a physician in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children's Hospital at Strong. "This is more evidence that breastfeeding is beneficial to infants."

It is unknown which components of breast milk make it more beneficial than formula, but the study's authors speculate that it might related to the fact that human milk differs significantly from commercial infant formulas in fatty-acid composition. For example, commercial formulas available today do not contain certain long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.

One reason this study hasn't been done before is because babies born this prematurely are a relatively new phenomenon. In the early 1980s, babies born at 28 weeks gestation had a 50 percent chance of survival. Now, babies born at 24 weeks gestation have a 50 percent survival rate, while the babies born at 28 weeks have almost a 90 percent survival rate.

"These babies are relatively new to us," Guillet says. "Not long ago, we didn't have these babies to care for. We are now investigating the best ways to optimize growth and development in these extremely premature infants."

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