Children who were born preterm are at heightened risk of lower academic achievement in math, reading and other skills and are also at greater risk for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But a new study suggests that an intervention in the first weeks and months of a preterm infant’s life may lead to better neurodevelopmental outcomes in later years.
In a study that followed preterm infants for seven years, investigators from Brigham and Women’s Hospital together with collaborators at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute found that children who received greater quantities of maternal milk both during and after time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) had greater academic achievement, higher IQs and reduced ADHD symptoms. Results are published in JAMA Network Open.
“Our study finds that there may be long-term neurodevelopmental benefits to providing maternal milk to preterm infants,” said corresponding author Mandy Brown Belfort, MD, MPH, of the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine. “A lot of families are dedicated to the idea of providing maternal milk but may face steep challenges. Our findings emphasize the importance of providing support for initiating and sustaining lactation because maternal milk at this early age can provide benefits years later.”
Overall, the researchers found that higher maternal milk intake was associated with higher Performance IQ and higher reading and math scores. Parents also reported fewer ADHD symptoms for children who consumed more maternal milk during infancy. Duration of maternal milk intake (up to 18 months corrected age) was also associated with higher reading, spelling, and math scores. The researchers controlled for confounders, including clinical and social factors. These beneficial associations were stronger for infants born at the lowest gestational ages, particularly those born below 30 weeks of gestation.
The authors note that their study is observational — they cannot determine causality as there may be other, unaccounted factors that influence both the ability to provide maternal milk and academic achievement.