Could Breast Milk Prevent Blindness in Premature Infants?

A recent study brings up the possibility that mother's breast milk might be able to ward off blindness, a complication associated with premature birth.

premaature-infant hans engbers/Shutterstock

Breast milk has a wealth of health benefits when consumed by your baby—but if recent studies are any indication, it might be an even more powerful antidote than we previously thought.

A recent study led by Shanghai-based neonatologist Jianguo Zhou, M.D., finds that breast milk might have the power to prevent retinopathy of prematurity, a disorder that causes blindness in over half of all infants born before 30 weeks of gestation. Despite treatments that were developed in the 1980s, about 50,000 infants are affected by the condition each year, according to NPR.

But according to Dr. Zhou and her team, who looked at five studies as analysis, that number could be halved if infants are fed mother's milk.

"I think it's intriguing," Billie Short, M.D., neonataology chief at Children's National Hospital, tells Fit Pregnancy. "We know breast milk is very protective for the premature baby in many other ways. It's known to decrease infection risk, not only in the bloodstream, but also in the intestinal tract, which is one of the disorders that can happen in the preemies—they can get infections in the intestinal tract which can be lethal. Many studies have shown that breast milk decreases that risk significantly."

As for the claims made by the study at hand: "It makes sense," Dr. Short says. "The same mechanisms could be protective to the eyes of the premature baby."

With that being said, Dr. Short can't confirm the study's claims—yet. "To really confirm it there might need to be more observational studies in the future, but I think this is a nice finding. From a physiology standpoint it all makes sense."

Mothers can get breast milk to premature babies by pumping milk, which is given to the infants through a tube if they're too small to swallow independently. "This is very important because breast milk is very protective of preemie babies," Dr. Short said.

Whether or not breast milk can slash rates of retinopathy of prematurity so dramatically has yet to be seen—but one thing seems clear to Dr. Short: Breast milk certainly has tremendous benefits for premature infants. "We actually have a theme in our nursery: Breast milk is a medicine for the premature babies," she said.