Breast milk has a different composition if a baby is born prematurely, which researchers say is the mothers’ body compensating for the early birth, but it raises questions as to whether early birth children get the proper nutrients when fed something other than their mothers’ milk.
Researchers in Denmark suggest altering the nutrient content of breast milk or formula to tailor it for the specific needs of a baby born early, which is possible, though more research is necessary to determine if it would be proper.
Breast milk is the best example of customized food, according to Ulrik Sendekilde, the lead researcher on a recent study at Aarhus University, but researchers were unsure before the study whether nature compensates for an under-developed child’s nutritional needs.
“If we are able to demonstrate a connection between the milk’s nutrient content and the child’s development, then the analysis method may be used to determine whether the milk is sufficiently rich in nutrients — and thus we can help vulnerable, premature infants by providing the optimum nutrition which they cannot achieve solely from breast milk,” Sundekilde, a post-doctoral researcher in the department of food science at Aarhus, said in a press release.
For the study, published in the journal Nutrients, the researchers analyzed the metabolite content of milk samples from 45 women up to 14 weeks after giving birth.
Their results echo previous research showing protein, fat and carbohydrates in breast milk differs depending on when a baby is born — at 30 weeks of gestation as opposed to term, which is considered 37 or more weeks — showing micronutrients also differ in the milk.
The new study also showed that a few weeks after the early birth of a baby, the mother’s body starts making milk identical to that of a mother who has given birth at full term.
Sundekilde says more research is needed on how the difference in metabolites affects development, if at all, before contemplating whether the content of breast milk needs to be modified — though he notes “it is technically possible” to do so in Danish hospitals already.
“We do not yet know the nutritional importance of all metabolites, and as premature infants have other and more specialized nutritional needs it may constitute a challenge that they are actually fed milk that they are not yet fully developed to digest, particularly during a period that is extremely important for their future growth and development,” Sundekilde said.