Premature babies are vulnerable to many health problems, including bowel issues— which is why they are often tube-fed and milk feed delayed until much later. According to a new study, preemies may actually benefit from being moved to milk earlier, and doing so doesnt increase their risk of developing bowel problems, including necrotising enterocolitis.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Oxford, and aimed to find out if preemies who were also underweight for their gestational age could gain a healthier weight earlier by commencing milk feedings. Tube feeding is practiced to avoid bowel conditions, but besides concerns over slow weight gain, it can also actually cause liver damage. So the study team looked at 400 infants who were born at least five weeks prematurely, and who also had a low weight.

Half of the babies, who were all on breathing assistance but not otherwise ill, were given milk on day two after their birth. The other half was offered milk on day six. Out of all of those, three quarters received their mothers breast milk, rather than formula or donor milk. The conclusion was that the babies who received milk earlier were also successfully moved onto full-time milk feedings sooner, moved out of intensive care more quickly, and didnt have a significantly higher chance of bowel trouble, including necrotising enterocolitis (NEC).

The risk of developing NEC was 18 percent for the early milk babies, vs 15 percent for those who were fed milk later. The study authors concluded that premature, underweight babies would generally benefit from starting milk feeds within the first 24-48 hours after birth.

Professor Peter Brocklehurst, one of the study authors, explained: Early feeding appears to be better for these high risk babies. This research will enable more high risk premature babies to be fed early, and to achieve full feeding earlier. This will reduce the need for intravenous drips and infusions.