Babies born prematurely are at greater risk of heart disease in later life. But, feeding them breastmilk rather than formula can substantially cut this risk.
To test the theory that breastmilk may have long term heart benefits, researchers followed a group of 926 premature infants, who were fed either banked breastmilk, preterm formula or standard formula.
Assessments made when the children were aged 13-16 years revealed that mean blood pressure was significantly lower by more than 4 mmHg in those who received the breastmilk. Among infants whose mother breastfed them in addition to the prescribed diet, blood pressure was lower still in the banked milk group than in the formula groups.
Results like this show the importance of taking in the bigger picture when it comes to infant feeding. For instance, in this study, infants who were fed synthetic milk grew faster than those fed on breastmilk. In the eyes of many physicians, steady and significant weight gain is the single most important sign of health in premature babies.
However, it is clear that other, less easily measurable factors are also important.
Many hospitals still discourage mothers from holding their premature babies, let alone breast feeding them. These may be practices based on outdated policies rather than scientific evidence (Lancet, 2001; 357: 406-7, 413-9).