Stories about: Mandy Belfort

Babies born extremely premature are surviving. How do they do in the long run?

The NICU at Boston Children's Hospital in 1976

Thirty years ago, no one would have expected babies born extremely prematurely—between 23 and 25 weeks’ gestation, considered the edge of viability—to survive long enough to worry about what the future might hold for them as third graders.

But times change. Treatments like surfactants and prenatal steroids, along with improvements in ventilators and nutrition, have often enabled children born in that “gray zone” to survive.

Thus, doctors and parents now can start to ask questions about the long-term development of extremely premature babies. How will he do—physically, cognitively, intellectually—in the long run? What impairments might she face, and how severe will they be?

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Can breastfeeding for longer make a child smarter?

There are many scientific studies showing that breastfeeding offers health benefits to infants. Many of these reports focus on tangible benefits, like breast milk’s ability to help babies ward off allergies or reduce their risk of developing gastrointestinal issues. But quality research demonstrating how breastfeeding can affect an infant’s brain has been far more difficult to produce. Previous studies on the topic have made connections, but they didn’t account for many other factors that influence a child’s development, like his mother’s intelligence, socioeconomic status, home environment during key developmental milestones or if he was raised with homecare vs. daycare.

In addition, many of these studies focused only on whether baby was “ever breastfed” or “never breastfed.” By ignoring an entire population of children raised on both breast milk and formula—or researching how much time they spent receiving either— these studies fail to truly define the potential role breastfeeding plays in a child’s future cognitive development.

To better explore the issue, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital’s Division of Newborn Medicine recently conducted a study on the possible ways breast milk and intelligence are related, while accounting for several of the factors ignored in other studies. In doing so, the team has produced the most complete analysis of the subject to date.

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