Pregnant women today are mindful about the importance of prenatal care and prevention, particularly with respect to nutrition. However, with a steady barrage of new information, some of it seemingly contradictory, even the most conscientious mother-to-be may struggle to determine the best choices for her baby.
This Fast Facts outlines current scientific research and clarifies potentially confusing information.
As CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota remembers, it was just another day at work. Until it wasn’t. A routine prenatal check-up for Alisyn, then 30 weeks pregnant with twins, turned life changing when her doctor announced that she’d need to deliver her daughters within 48 hours.
Protecting premature infants from a deadly intestinal disease, new research suggests, may boil down to a surprising combination: milk and bacteria.
According to a new study, breastmilk provides a vital antibody that binds to bacteria in a premature infant’s gut. Preemies with higher amounts of bacteria bonded to the antibody from their mothers’ milk are less likely to develop NEC, or necrotizing enterocolitis. And that’s no small feat. The intestinal disease can cause distended abdomen, infection, low blood pressure and shock. About 15% of infants who develop NEC die, and those who survive can face long-term health challenges.
A diet of human milk allows the smallest of preemies to catch up on weight gain, new research confirms.
The study, published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood Fetal & Neonatal, followed preemies from their NICU discharge until they were about two years old. Researchers considered two groups of preemies – those whose birthweight was appropriate for their gestational age, and those whose weight was especially low, even accounting for their prematurity. Both groups were given an exclusive human milk diet while in the NICU. That is, they received only their mother’s breastmilk or donor milk, along with human-milk based fortifier. The infants did not receive bovine-based formula or fortifier.
The results suggest that an exclusive human milk diet can be a boon for both groups, but especially for the smallest of preemies. From their first visit with researchers, at 12-15 months, to their second visit at 18-22 months, their body mass index spiked – even more so than their fellow preemies whose weight had been gestational-age appropriate at birth.
Dubbed “liquid gold,” human milk offers a nutritional elixir for infants. And that has researchers asking an intriguing question: How else could human milk be used to optimize health?
They aren’t the first to wonder. As reported by STAT News, some cancer patients have tried drinking breastmilk in hopes of therapeutic benefits. And bodybuilders have purportedly tried it in hopes of boosting their muscle mass with the milk’s dense nutritional content. Neither has proven effective.
But several research organizations are investigating the use of human milk for the health of infants and children – from improving the efficiency of vaccines to providing the cellular foundation of new medicines.
Breast is best, the familiar adage reminds parents of newborns. And this August, Breastfeeding Awareness Month gives families, health care providers and policymakers a chance to reflect on the benefits that breastfeeding offers babies and mothers alike. It also begs the questions: How do hospitals, health plans and regulatory policies encourage breastfeeding? And where they could improve?
Calling breastfeeding “the normative standard,” the American Academy of Pediatrics explains that human milk can protect infants from infections, sepsis, diabetes and even childhood obesity. Mothers also benefit, as breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
But do policies encourage mothers and infants to reap the benefits of breastfeeding? Not necessarily.
All mothers want to give their babies a stronger immune system, reduce their risk of SIDS and lower their rate of respiratory infections. But a recent study found black babies may be less able to realize these and other benefits of an exclusive human milk diet.
When researchers analyzed the use of donor milk in neonatal intensive care units by comparing the demographic make-up of hospitals’ zip codes, they found that fewer infants in areas with more black residents routinely received donor milk. These results underscore the need for ongoing education about the benefits of breast milk– and for policies that make donor milk more widely available.
Eating fish offers pregnant women nutritional benefits for both themselves and their developing babies. But, looking at newly published advice from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, you might miss that fact.
The one-page document prioritizes choices based on mercury content instead of emphasizing the nutritional benefits of fish consumption. It also assigns fish to “best,” “good” and “avoid” categories based on distinctions that may be hard for consumers to follow. For example, tilefish is a good choice for pregnant women – unless it comes from the Gulf of Mexico. Likewise, tuna is a “best” choice if it’s canned light; “good” if yellowfin, albacore or white. If it’s bigeye, however, the FDA and EPA advise pregnant women to pass.
Sensationalized media accounts have misconstrued the facts on pregnancy and fish consumption, explains a new Fast Facts health bulletin from the National Coalition for Infant Health. Entitled “Fish Consumption for Pregnant Women,” the bulletin highlights guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Together, these authorities shape a unified message: two to three servings of cooked fish each week offer pregnant women and growing children proven health benefits.
Fish consumption can be a valuable source of iron and vitamin D, the Fast Facts bulletin explains, as well as omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA. These nutritional benefits also translate into a developmental boost for developing babies; fish consumption can boost babies’ IQ by 2.63 points and allow them to reach developmental milestones, such as sitting up, more quickly. Mothers can also benefit in the way of improved mental health, stronger bones and better circulation.
Many pregnant women embrace eating habits that protect and benefit their unborn babies. But their choices can become complicated when claims from unscientific sources clash with regulatory agencies’ clear, established nutrition guidance. Such is the case with a recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) on the value of fish in a healthy pregnancy diet.