Postnatal Nutrition To Improve Brain Development In Premature BabiesDr. Ramani Ranjan
MBBS, DCH, MD (Paed), MRCPCH (UK)
Nutrition plays an important role in brain development right from conception to 3 years of age. The biggest concern for any expectant mother is whether her baby is getting appropriate nutrition in the womb. After the baby is born, this concern is all the more relevant as the baby is completely dependent on the mother for her nutritional requirements. Understandably, when the baby is born preterm or premature, this nutritional requirement is even higher as they would need to compensate for the growing deficit.
The best way to ensure that your child is getting all the nutrition would be to breastfeed your baby. In fact, during the postnatal period, you need to focus on two things – eating nutritious food and feeding your little one breast milk.
Preterm birth is defined as any birth before 37 completed weeks of gestation. Decades back, this was a great cause of concern as premature babies were known to struggle for survival. Premature birth has been linked to an increased likelihood of problems with learning and thinking skills in later life, which are due to alterations in brain development. With recent advancements in newborn care, preterm babies can now be provided the best source of nutrition – Human milk so that they can grow at par as a full-term baby.
Importance Of Postnatal Nutrition For Premature Babies
A great deal of the brain’s structure and capacity is designed early in life before the age of 3 years. In fact the first two years are of utmost importance for brain development, motor skills, memory, and attention span. Inadequate nutrition intake can not only increase risks for developing obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes in adult life but it also increases risk of complications during the hospital stay.,
Human milk For Premature Babies
Premature babies usually lag behind full-term babies when it comes to areas like motor skills, activeness, and overall behavior. Research has suggested that there is a significant correlation between brain / white matter development and essential nutrients like fats and proteins which are the major components of human milk.
Although the stress of giving birth to a premature baby can cause some hindrance in breast milk production, over time, this can also be overcome. A study has found that premature babies display better brain development when fed human milk rather than formula milk.
The nutrition received in the first few weeks after birth goes a long way in promoting the development of brain, tissues, organs, and skin. That’s why, it is imperative that the nutrition received by the premature baby is wholesome and is rich in essential nutrients.
Iron supplements given to expectant mothers (prenatal) go a long way in improving motor skills and intellectual abilities. A prenatal diet rich in zinc leads to an increase in memory skills, learning skills, and attention spans. Iodine, similar to iron, increases a baby’s cognitive abilities when given to expectant mothers.
Thus, it is emphasized that human milk is fed to infants, especially premature babies, to combat growth deficiency and problems arising due to poor immunity. Human milk offers the optimum mix of nutrients for encouraging brain growth. However, breastfeeding should be supplemented with iron in some form after around 6 months.
Supplemental Nutrition in NICU
As mentioned before, the numerous advances in science have helped us to combat problems arising out of preterm delivery and postnatal nutrition. Major hospitals have a dedicated Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where premature babies are specifically given additional support through nutrition, which encourages growth and brain development.
A Note to New Parents
Although postnatal nutrition is crucial, however, parents should understand that growth is an ongoing process. Many times, once children start consuming solid foods, they become vulnerable to deficiencies as they start mirroring the diet of their parents. Thus, they may miss out on the nutrients essential for their growth and development. Babies born preterm may be more vulnerable as they would require a diet with higher energy than full-term babies to compensate for the delay in brain development.