Breastfeeding premature babies has for the first time been shown to improve long-term heart structure and function.
Researchers hypothesised that being fed human breast milk during early postnatal life was beneficial to long-term cardiac structure and function, compared with infant formulas.
“We need to ensure there are systems and resources in place to encourage women with very small babies to breastfeed”
They noted that understanding whether preterm postnatal life was a period of cardiovascular development that could be positively altered by nutrition was “relevant to long-term outcomes”.
The Oxford University study involved 926 preterm-born infants who originally took part in a trial of postnatal milk-feeding regimens between 1982 and 1985.
Preterm-born individuals were randomly assigned to either breast milk donated by unrelated lactating women or nutrient-enriched formulas.
The researchers followed 102 individuals from the trial, 30 of whom had been randomised to being fed exclusively human milk and 16 to being fed exclusively formula.
As a comparison group, they recruited an additional 102 individuals born term to uncomplicated pregnancies. Cardiac morphology and function were assessed by MRI.
The study found preterm-born individuals fed exclusively human milk as infants had increased left and right ventricular end-diastolic volume index and stroke volume index, compared with preterm-born individuals who were exclusively formula fed as infants.
“This study provides the first evidence of a beneficial association between breast milk and cardiac morphology and function in adult life in those born preterm and supports promotion of human milk for the care of preterm infants to reduce long-term cardiovascular risk,” said the study authors in the journal Pediatrics.
Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “The benefits of breastfeeding have long been known to be significant, and have an influence on an individual’s long-term health status well into adult life.
“This research adds further weight to this and shows why we should actively promote breastfeeding as the most appropriate method of infant feeding,” she said.
“We need to ensure that there are systems and resources in place to encourage women with very small babies to breastfeed, because of the tangible benefits, both in the short and long term,” said Ms Fyle.
She added: “It is important that health professionals have the time and the resources to devote to advising and supporting women to breastfeed and for longer.”