The hearts of premature babies are smaller than full-term babies. Breastfeeding premature babies improves heart structure and function, says a new study.
The study conducted by a team of Oxford researchers found that adults who were born early had reduced heart volumes and function compared with those who were not. However, the damage was significantly less in those who as infants had been breastfed.
‘Premature babies had reduced heart volumes and function compared to those born at term. But the damage was less in those who had been exclusively breastfed than those fed formula milk.’
For those who had received a combination of feeding methods, heart structure and function improved the more they were given.
The researchers looked at 102 adults who had been enrolled in a study of premature babies in 1982 to check how their hearts had developed. They also recruited extra 102 people who were born preterm for comparison.
The study showed that those who had been breastfed had ventricles which were 10 percent larger than bottle-fed babies. The hearts of breastfed babies also beat more strongly.
"Even the best baby formula lacks some of the growth factors, enzymes, and antibodies that breastmilk provides to developing babies," said Dr Adam Lewandowski and colleagues at the Oxford Cardiovascular Clinical Research Facility.
"These results show that even in people whose premature birth has inevitably affected their development, breastfeeding may be able to improve heart development."
Professor Russell Viner, from the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, said, "This is an exciting piece of research which adds to the wide-ranging benefits that are already known about breastmilk. For premature babies, who are born before they are physically ready for life outside the womb, breastmilk is incredibly important. It protects an already vulnerable baby from infections and leads to a range of later beneficial effects on the brain, blood pressure, and bone strength."
"This research suggests that the benefits also extend to improved development of the heart."
Previous studies have shown that babies who were breastfed for at least 12 months have higher IQs than those breastfed for under a month.
The new results were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.