Beneficial effects of breast milk on cognitive skills and behavior ratings have been demonstrated previously in term and very low birth weight infants. Extremely low birth weight infants are known to be at increased risk for developmental and behavior morbidities. The benefits of breast milk that is ingested in the NICU by extremely low birth weight infants on development and behavior have not been evaluated previously.
Nutrition data including enteral and parenteral feeds were collected prospectively, and follow-up assessments of 1035 extremely low birth weight infants at 18 months' corrected age were completed at 15 sites that were participants in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Neonatal Research Network Glutamine Trial between October 14, 1999, and June 25, 2001. Total volume of breast milk feeds (mL/kg per day) during hospitalization was calculated. Neonatal characteristics and morbidities, interim history, and neurodevelopmental and growth outcomes at 18 to 22 months' corrected age were assessed.
There were 775 (74.9%) infants in the breast milk and 260 (25.1%) infants in the no breast milk group. Infants in the breast milk group were similar to those in the no breast milk group in every neonatal characteristic and morbidity, including number of days of hospitalization. Mean age of first day of breast milk for the breast milk infants was 9.3 +/- 9 days. Infants in the breast milk group began to ingest non-breast milk formula later (22.8 vs 7.3 days) compared with the non-breast milk group. Age at achieving full enteral feeds was similar between the breast milk and non-breast milk groups (29.0 +/- 18 vs 27.4 +/- 15). Energy intakes of 107.5 kg/day and 105.9 kg/day during the hospitalization did not differ between the breast milk and non-breast milk groups, respectively. At discharge, 30.6% of infants in the breast milk group still were receiving breast milk. Mothers in the breast milk group were significantly more likely to be white (42% vs 27%), be married (50% vs 30%), have a college degree (22% vs 6%), and have private health insurance (34% vs 18%) compared with the no breast milk group. Mothers who were black, had a low household income (< or = dollar 20000), or had higher parity were less likely to provide breast milk feeds. The analysis of outcomes between the any human milk and no human milk groups were adjusted for maternal age, maternal education, marital status, race/ethnicity, and the other standard covariates. Children in the breast milk group were more likely to have a Bayley Mental Development Index > or = 85, higher mean Bayley Psychomotor Development Index, and higher Bayley Behavior Rating Scale percentile scores for orientation/engagement, motor regulation, and total score. There were no differences in the rates of moderate to severe cerebral palsy or blindness or hearing impairment between the 2 study groups. There were no differences in the mean weight (10.4 kg vs 10.4 kg), length (80.5 cm vs 80.5 cm), or head circumference (46.8 cm vs 46.6 cm) for the breast milk and no breast milk groups, respectively, at 18 months. Multivariate analyses, adjusting for confounders, confirmed a significant independent association of breast milk on all 4 primary outcomes: the mean Bayley (Mental Development Index, Psychomotor Development Index, Behavior Rating Scale, and incidence of rehospitalization). For every 10-mL/kg per day increase in breast milk ingestion, the Mental Development Index increased by 0.53 points, the Psychomotor Development Index increased by 0.63 points, the Behavior Rating Scale percentile score increased by 0.82 points, and the likelihood of rehospitalization decreased by 6%. In an effort to identify a threshold effect of breast milk on Bayley Mental Development Index and Psychomotor Development Index scores and Behavior Rating Scale percentile scores, the mean volume of breast milk per kilogram per day during the hospitalization was calculated, and infants in the breast milk group were divided into quintiles of breast milk ingestion adjusted for confounders. Overall, the differences across the feeding quintiles of Mental Development Index and Psychomotor Development Index were significant. There was a 14.0% difference in Behavior Rating Scale scores between the lowest and highest quintiles. For the outcomes (Mental Development Index, Psychomotor Development Index, Behavior Rating Scale, and Rehospitalization <1 year), only the values for the >80th percentile quintile of breast milk feeding were significantly different from the no breast milk values. In our adjusted regression analyses, every 10 mL/kg per day breast milk contributed 0.53 points to the Bayley Mental Development Index; therefore, the impact of breast milk ingestion during the hospitalization for infants in the highest quintile (110 mL/kg per day) on the Bayley Mental Development Index would be 10 x 0.53, or 5.3 points.
An increase of 5 points potentially would optimize outcomes and decrease costs by decreasing the number of very low birth weight children who require special education services. The societal implications of a 5-point potential difference (one third of an SD) in IQ are substantial. The potential long-term benefit of receiving breast milk in the NICU for extremely low birth weight infants may be to optimize cognitive potential and reduce the need for early intervention and special education services.