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Study: Breast Milk Boosts Brain Development in Preemies

Young mother breastfeeding her baby in a meadowPremature babies fed a diet consisting of at least 50% breast milk had more robust brain development compared to their peers, according to a study that will be presented May 3 at the annual meeting of Pediatric Academic Sciences.

Most pregnancies last about 40 weeks, and babies born before 37 weeks gestation are considered premature. The risk of physical and mental health problems is greater if a baby is born premature. Babies born very early often have underdeveloped brains. Lifesaving treatments, however, may necessitate separations from their mothers. This can limit their access to breast milk. According to the new study, preemies can benefit from any breast milk, even if it comes from a donor.

How Does Breast Milk Improve Brain Development?

The study followed 77 premature infants, each of whom was born at least 10 weeks early. The average gestation of the babies in the study was 26 weeks—14 weeks premature. Researchers tracked the babies’ diets and brain development in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). They then used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to assess brain growth and development at around the time the babies would have been born if they were full term.

They found the surface area of the brain’s cortex increased in proportion to the amount of breast milk a baby consumed, whether the breast milk came from the baby’s mother or from a donor. Because the babies were born early, the study does not specify whether breast milk could also improve brain growth in full-term babies. Other studies have found cognitive benefits associated with breastfeeding.

Researchers do not yet know if this early growth in brain size will affect the babies’ development. They plan to continue following the babies for several years to assess whether breastfed babies hit developmental milestones earlier than babies who consumed only formula.

Some other studies have found better outcomes in premature newborns who were fed breast milk. A 2011 study found a heightened risk of necrotizing enterocolitis—a potentially fatal gastrointestinal infection—in premature babies who ate formula.

Breastfeeding Recommendations

A 2013 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found 77% of mothers breastfed their babies at birth. By six months, 49% of babies were still breastfed, and at 12 months, 27% of babies continued getting breast milk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed, receiving no other sources of nutrition or hydration, during the first six months of life. After the introduction of other foods around six months, the AAP recommends continuing to breastfeed for at least a year, and for as long after that as the mother and baby desire.


  1. Breastfeeding initiative FAQs. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  2. Breast feeding report card United States/2013 [PDF]. (2013, July). Atlanta: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Breast milk linked to significant early brain growth in preemies. (2016, April 30). Retrieved from
  4. Chamary, J. (2016, April 30). Breast milk boosts brain growth in premature babies. Retrieved from
  5. Flacking, R., Lehtonen, L., Thomson, G., Axelin, A., Ahlqvist, S., Moran, V. H., . . . Dykes, F. (2012). Closeness and separation in neonatal intensive care. Actata Paediatrica, 101(10), 1032-1037. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2012.02787.x
  6. Formula-fed preemies at higher risk for dangerous GI condition surgery than babies who get donor milk. (2011, May 2). Retrieved from

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  • Beth

    May 3rd, 2016 at 5:00 PM

    And yet another thing for moms of preemies who may not can breastfeed to feel even worse.

  • Tad

    May 4th, 2016 at 2:15 PM

    I am so glad though that more people are becoming more accepting of breast feeding, and that women are not being made to feel that they have to hide when they are only doing what nature intended and that is to feed their children. The dumbest thing ever is when women are made to feel like they are doing something wrong by feeding the babies in public. What are they supposed to do? Go hide in the car for fear of offending someone?

  • martin

    May 7th, 2016 at 10:33 AM

    and are there other options for mothers who would like to breastfeed but can’t?

  • A Blessed Mom

    May 8th, 2016 at 9:28 AM

    I breast-pumped milk 10-14 times each day for my micro-preemie for a period of a little over 3.5 years. I feel so thankful I instinctively knew to do this. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life, and the most important. I, myself, was hospitalized for a few weeks and my child was for four months and then had to go back again for a week for an operation. Hospitals need to provide industrial breast pumps for all preemie moms for as long as they are willing to pump. I rented mine, it cost close to $5,000, worth every penny as my child is excelling 6 years after being born at 1.7 pounds. It’s interesting because I was literally mocked at by many a Kaiser staff and told to stop for my own health. I’m so glad I listened to my inner mother and not to mean and ignorant medical staff. I feel Kaiser should reimburse me the $5,000 for the industrial breast pump rental, after reading this study! I was told by many folks at Kaiser if my child didn’t consume their disgusting GMO formula, horrible things would happen! Even subtle comments about CPS being involved. Another thing I did was to supplement with organic coconut milk. There are many studies, outside of the USA, including one from WHO, that state the benefits of coconut milk for preemies, in addition to breast milk. I did have an amazing Kaiser Southern Indian neonatal MD that secretly encouraged me to breastpump as often as possible and as long I could and she even told me to consume the herb fenugreek with every meal and with tea to promote milk. She also told me to avoid foods and products that contained mint, which would dry up my milk ducts, including toothpaste and mouthwash. She also told me to co-sleep, a big Kaiser no-no. Looking back, I’m so thankful for her going against the “system” and teaching me whet woman have been using for thousands of years for their babies health.

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