Kids Health

Breast milk is important for infants in the NICU

World Breastfeeding Week 2019: The mother starts developing specific antibodies to combat germs in the infant's surroundings while touching or holding the infant. These protective antibodies are passed on to the infant through the mother's milk.

By Dr Aruna Savur

World Breastfeeding Week 2019: Mother’s milk is recognised as the optimal feeding for infants and is not only nutritious but also has various medical benefits. This is the best a mother can do, especially if the baby is born prematurely. A premature baby is born at less than 37 weeks of gestation. This results in the baby being susceptible to significant health problems and developmental problems. Therefore, parents need to be aware of the benefits of mother’s milk so that they can give premature infants the perfect start to a healthy life.

Mother’s milk is filled with protective components that can safeguard the premature the infant against a variety of ailments:

Colostrum

This is the first form of milk produced by the mother and is very beneficial for promoting intestinal development and reducing the risk of infection in the infant. The earlier the infant is born, the higher the concentration of the protective elements in the colostrum.

Antibody boost

The mother starts developing specific antibodies to combat germs in the infant’s surroundings while touching or holding the infant. These protective antibodies are passed on to the infant through the mother’s milk.

Living cells

Mother’s milk contains live cells called leukocytes which protect the infant against infection. It also contains stem cells which act as an internal building and repair system.

Fats for brain development

Mother’s milk contains a variety of fats such as omega-3 fatty acids which optimise brain growth and development in the premature infant whose growth during the last trimester may be affected due to premature birth.

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Additionally, the protective components in mother’s milk help in improving early life outcomes such as:

Dose-response relationship

Increasing the dosage of mother’s milk is directly proportional to decreasing risk of diseases. An additional 10 ml of milk daily can reduce the infant’s risk of sepsis by 19 per cent.

Enhancing early development

Mother’s milk enhances neurodevelopment in the infant even post the NICU stay. Infants receiving more than 110 ml of mother’s milk daily have a significant increase in IQ and behavioural scores at 18 months of age.

Fewer short-term morbidities

Compared with formula milk, mother’s milk reduces the risk of necrotising enterocolitis (NEC), sepsis, SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and many other diseases in the first year of life.

Returning home earlier

Preterm infants who are fed mother’s milk are more likely to be discharged earlier and have a reduced risk of re-hospitalisation the first year after discharge.

The protective components in mother’s milk also provide life-long benefits to the infant. They reduce the risk of diseases over a lifetime including a reduction in neurological impairment, childhood diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Mother’s milk decreases the risk of mortality, morbidity and helps improve the quality of life.

Mother’s milk is especially tailormade for her infant. Therefore, it is the best source of nutrition for the infant and mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed their baby or express their milk. Supporting mothers to do so will help the infant get a healthy life through an exclusive milk diet.

(The writer is Neonatologist, Paediatrician & Certified Lactation Expert (IBCLC), Motherhood Hospitals, Bangalore.)

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