Fortified breast milk may aid preemies' growth
By Amy Norton
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Adding a powdered nutrient supplement to breast milk may enhance premature infants' growth without interfering with breast-feeding, preliminary research suggests.
In a pilot study of 39 infants born weighing less than 4 pounds, Canadian researchers found that babies who were fed breast milk fortified with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients generally showed better growth than those given breast milk alone.
After 12 weeks, infants on fortified breast milk were longer, on average, and had a larger head circumference, the researchers report in the journal Pediatrics.
What's more, although the measure required mothers to use a breast pump, and mix half their milk with the powdered supplement, it did not seem to interfere with their ability to breast-feed.
At the end of the study, there was no significant difference in the percentage of breast milk received by the infants in the supplemented breast milk group and those in the unfortified breast milk group.
Newborns who are very premature or underweight begin life at a disadvantage because their nutrient reserves are lower than normal. While still in the hospital, these infants often have extra nutrients added to their breast milk.
The new findings suggest the same could be done for a short time after the babies go home, lead researcher Dr. Deborah L. O'Connor, of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, told Reuters Health.
In the U.S., the same breast-milk fortifiers used in hospitals are available for home use, though this is not common practice. The supplements are complicated to use, O'Connor explained, and parents should only do so under medical supervision.
The amount of supplemental powder to be added to any one infant's breast milk must be precisely calculated to avoid unsafe levels of any nutrient. Because the powders are not sterile, O'Connor noted, parents need to learn how to prepare the feedings in a hygienic manner.
Larger, longer-term studies are still needed to confirm that using breast-milk fortifiers at home is beneficial, according to O'Connor and her colleagues.
For now, O'Connor said, parents of very premature or underweight newborns should know that breast-feeding is the "very best possible way for them to nourish their babies."
Parents who plan to breast-feed should work with their doctor or a dietitian to develop a plan for meeting all of their baby's nutritional needs, she advised.
Mothers in the current study were given not only the nutrient supplement, but help from a lactation consultant as well. O'Connor recommended that before they take their baby home from the hospital, parents get the number of a lactation consultant with expertise in very premature and low-birthweight infants.
The supplement used in the study was provided by Montreal-based Abbott Nutrition. The researchers report no financial interests in the study results.
SOURCE: Pediatrics, April 2008.