A study by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital found that premature infants weighing less than 1,250 grams at birth showed improved overall outcomes after the implementation of the human milk-based diet. The report appears today in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine.

The research compared outcomes of premature infants in four large centers in the United States before and after the implementation of an exclusive human milk-based diet in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

“There are published reports about the benefits of an exclusive human milk-based diet for infants with necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a devastating intestinal disease that can cause infants to lose a portion of their intestines, become very ill or even die,” said Dr. Amy Hair, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor, neonatologist and director of the neonatal nutrition program at Texas Children’s, and first author of the study. “However, since implementing an all human milk-based diet at Texas Children’s Hospital for babies weighing less than 1,500 grams when they were born, not only have we noticed a significant decrease in necrotizing enterocolitis to 2 to 3 percent, down from the national average of 10 to 12 percent, but we have seen additional benefits with this diet.”

An exclusive human milk-based diet consists of the mother’s own milk supplemented with donor human milk and fortifier derived from donor human milk. Babies do not receive any bovine protein as formula or fortifiers. Prior to the implementation of this all human milk feeding protocol, infants were fed mother’s own milk with bovine fortifier or formula.

Researchers studied data from more than 1,500 infants weighing less than 1,250 grams at birth from four centers and compared data from approximately two years before and two years after implementation of the exclusive human milk-based diet. They found that those who were fed the exclusive human milk based diet had a lower incidence of mortality, late-onset sepsis, retinopathy of prematurity (which can lead to blindness) and bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a form of chronic lung disease in infants.

“We know that human milk has immune factors, antibodies, high levels of important fat and vitamins, so it makes sense that it would work with different processes in the body to make the baby healthier overall,” said Hair.

Others who took part in the study include Allison M. Peluso, Keli M. Hawthorne and Steven A. Abrams, formerly with Baylor and now with Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin; Jose Perez and Denise P. Smith of Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando, Fl.; Janine Y. Khan of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Ill.; Andrea O’Donnell, Richard J. Powers of Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, Calif.; and Martin L. Lee of Prolacta Bioscience.

This study was supported by funding from the Texas Children’s Hospital Bad Pants Open golf tournament.