Breastfeeding helps against low weight infants and infection

A new study shows that human milk protects extremely low birth weight infants from developing sepsis -- an overwhelming infection and a leading cause of illness and death in these tiny babies. In fact, the more human milk given as a percentage of nutritional intake, the lower the risk of sepsis during the hospital stay, according to the researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

The study will be presented Saturday, May 1, at the annual meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in San Francisco.

“Despite all the technological advancements of recent years, outcomes for extremely low birth weight infants haven’t improved all that much,” says Jareen Meinzen-Derr, MPH, a researcher in the Center for Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Cincinnati Children's. “But human milk makes a difference, and there’s no reason to believe the benefits wouldn’t extend to higher birth weight infants.”

Extremely low birth weight infants weigh between 401 and 1,000 grams at birth. That’s slightly less than one pound to just less than 2.2 pounds. Unfortunately, these infants are too tiny to nurse and must be fed orally via a gavage tube. Physicians at Cincinnati Children’s recognize that it is difficult for mothers to provide their own milk, but they strongly encourage them to do so.

“We encourage mothers to pump and collect their own breast milk and bring it to the hospital to be fed to their baby,” says Edward Donovan, MD, a neonatologist at Cincinnati Children’s and a co-author of the study. “It’s not an easy thing to ask of mothers, and I think care givers can probably do a better job of supporting them in this endeavor.”

Sepsis is a major cause of death and long-term disability in extremely low birth weight infants. As many as 30 percent develop an overwhelming infection, and as many as 20 percent die.

The Cincinnati Children’s researchers analyzed data on 1270 infants enrolled in an unrelated study at 15 centers. Thirty-nine percent had sepsis, and those who did “received significantly less human milk than infants who were never infected,” says Meinzen-Derr.

Extremely low birth weight infants who developed sepsis received milk as 29 percent of total intake. Infants never infected received milk as 33 percent of total intake, according to Meinzen-Derr.

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center is a 423-bed institution devoted to bringing the world the joy of healthier kids. Cincinnati Children's is dedicated to transforming the way health care is delivered by providing care that is timely, efficient, effective, patient-centered, equitable and safe. It ranks third nationally among all pediatric centers in research grants from the National Institutes of Health. The Cincinnati Children's vision is to be the leader in improving child health. Additional information can be found at http://www.cincinnatichildrens.org.

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