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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 1:21 EDT

Premature Infants Not Helped By Fortified Breast Milk

March 16, 2011

Researchers note in a new study that breast milk with added nutrients does not appear to boost growth rates in premature infants through the first year of their life.

Researchers followed 320 infants born premature — weighing less than 5 pounds and born between the 24th and 32nd week of pregnancy — and found that none of those given protein-fortified breast milk grew any larger by 12 months old than those who were given regular breast milk.

The results were surprising, according to lead researcher Dr. Gitte Zachariassen, a pediatrician at Hans Christian Andersen Children’s Hospital in Odense, Denmark.

In the hospital, preterm infants who are “tube fed” are given breast milk with a protein fortifier to help early growth, Zachariassen told Reuters Health. But when breast milk is not available, infants are given a special fortified formula.

Researchers expected that when infants are sent home the continued use of fortified breast milk would boost long-term weight gain and growth.

Of the 320 infants involved in the study, 207 were breastfed at the time they left the hospital. Researchers randomly assigned half of the mothers to add a supplement to their breast milk, while the rest kept on with regular breastfeeding. The remaining 113 mothers were given a special formula for their preterm infants.

The team found that in both breastfed groups the infants showed no difference in average weight gain or growth during the first year of life. However, infants who were bottle fed formula tended to be a little heavier and longer at 1 year old. But the team said average weight and length in all three groups were within normal range.

Still, breast milk is considered to be the best nutrition for premature infants, as well as full-term infants. And Zachariassen noted that some studies have found that preterm infants that have been breastfed go on to develop a higher IQ than bottle-fed preemies.

Zachariassen said more studies of breast milk fortifiers should be conducted to find out their effects on all levels of growth.

It’s possible that larger doses of fortifiers would be more effective, Zachariassen said. “But this has to be investigated in another study.”

The study was published in the journal Pediatrics. Mead Johnson Nutritionals supplied the breast-milk fortifier for the study.

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