News article

Human milk fat improves growth in premature infants

Posted:  Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Studies show the premature babies who are in neonatal intensive care unit need acceptable growth for long term health and development outcomes.Researchers at the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Centre at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have now successfully incorporated a cream supplement into premature infants' diets that improved their growth outcomes in the NICU. The report appears today in the Journal of Paediatrics.

"For premature babies who weigh less than 1,000 grams (about 2 pounds, 2 ounces), one of the problems is that their lungs and other organs are still developing when they are born. If the infant gains weight and increases in length at a good rate while in the NICU, this helps improve their outcomes," said Dr. Amy Hair, assistant professor of paediatrics at Baylor, neonatologist at Texas Children's Hospital and first author of the study.

Previous research has shown that an exclusive human milk diet protects the intestines of premature infants and supports their growth. This diet consists of mothers' own breast milk or donor human milk, as well as a fortifier consisting of protein and minerals made from the donor milk.

In this study, researchers sought a way to optimize this growth in very small infants (those who weigh between 750 and 1,250 grams) who need additional calories. Because infants are already receiving enough protein from the fortifier, another way to help them grow is by giving them fat. One of the by-products of pasteurizing donor milk is milk fat, also referred to as a cream supplement.

Researchers compared the growth outcomes of infants who received the exclusive human milk diet and the cream supplement to infants who received just the exclusive human milk diet. They found that infants in the cream group had better growth outcomes in terms of weight and length than infants in the control group.

"This is a natural way to give them fat. Previously, we would add oils or infant formula to help premature babies grow, but we can now use a natural source from donor milk," said Hair.

Hair noted that because the growth was both in weight and length, this growth is likely lean mass, consisting of bone and muscle growth. She also noted that the volume of milk given to these infants cannot change to help them grow because their stomach and intestine can only tolerate a certain amount of feedings.

"You want to see babies growing in both weight and length," said Hair.

"You cannot give them more volumes of milk. Especially if they have lung problems, they have to have a certain volume of milk. This is a way to add calories but not change the volume of milk," she said.

Since November 2013, the NICU at Texas Children's Hospital has changed its protocol to add this cream supplement to the diet of infants who weigh less than 1,500 grams.

"This also emphasizes the importance of donating excess breast milk that your baby doesn't need to a milk bank. It can help nourish our tiniest and most vulnerable infants," said Hair.