Breast milk offers excellent, balanced, and healthy nutrition for babies providing all the proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that young bodies need to stay healthy. Mothers create new antibodies in real time, which help strengthen young immune systems. But that’s not all. Recent studies have shown that breast milk is more beneficial than we think.
In 2014, researchers from the US and Australia found that feeding an exclusively human milk (EHM) diet to premature infants reduces the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a serious condition primarily affecting preemies.
A study in 2018 from the University of Helsinki showed that babies breastfed for at least six months have less antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their gut compared with infants breastfed for a shorter period of time.
Researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany have observed that breast milk administered intranasally (via the nose) could protect preemies who have experienced severe brain injuries. This is the first report on additional nasal breast milk application in very low birth weight preterm infants with severe brain injury observing a beneficial effect on neurodevelopment in preterm infants.
The research, published in The European Journal of Pediatrics, was based on the idea that breastmilk has stem cells (neurotrophins and mesenchymal stem cells) which can potentially repair brain injuries in preemies. Neurotrophins are molecules that can promote growth and survival of neural cells. Stem cells are pluripotent cells, meaning that they can develop into virtually any cell type that is needed by the body. The research is still in its early stages and the study is small (with only 31 extremely low birth weight preemies) but the concept is promising and deserves further studies.
If the international community is serious about meeting the health targets set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it must focus its efforts to encourage more mothers to feed their newborns breast milk and make it easier for mothers to actually breastfeed (it’s not easy!).