Breast-fed premature babies have better heart health – RCSI study

30 Aug 2021

Prof Afif EL-Khuffash. Image: RCSI

Led by Prof Afif El-Khuffash, the study found that preterm babies who had their mother’s own milk had heart health similar to full-term babies.

RCSI researchers have found a link between breast milk consumption and good cardiovascular health for premature infants.

The RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences study involved 80 preterm infants and found that those who consumed their mother’s own milk had hearts almost as healthy as those of full-term infants, which is not typically seen in preterm babies fed on formula.

Researchers from the University of Oxford, Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Northwestern University, Washington University and Harvard Medical School, also contributed to the study.

Announced today (30 August), the study was led by RCSI pediatrics professor Afif El-Khuffash, who is also a consultant neonatologist at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin.

“This study provides the first evidence of an association between early postnatal nutrition in preterm-born infants and heart function over the first year of age and adds to the already known benefits of breast milk for infants born prematurely,” said EL-Khuffash.

Preterm babies and are at higher risk of eventually developing and dying from cardiovascular disorders such as ischemic heart disease, heart failure and hypertension. Their hearts, the study said, are more likely to have reduced biventricular volume, shorter length, lower systolic and diastolic function, and a disproportionate increase in muscle mass. This dysfunction is detectable at hospital discharge and persists throughout adolescence.

The study found that premature infants who consumed their mother’s breast milk exclusively in the first few months after birth were able to recover from some of the abnormalities. They had greater left and right heart function, lower lung pressures and enhanced right heart response to stress.

“Preterm infants have abnormal heart function. However, those who are fed their mother’s own milk demonstrate recovery of their heart function to levels comparable to healthy term born infants. Preterm infants fed formula do not demonstrate this recovery,” EL-Khuffash added.

While the study concluded that breastfeeding in the neonatal period could be beneficial, it is unknown whether this benefit is evident in infants in the first year of age.

The study was published in the open-access medical journal JAMA Network Open on Friday (27 August).

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic