RESEARCH: A neonatal expert based at Southampton’s teaching hospitals says earlier introduction of milk feeds for premature babies can improve their health and weight and reduce time spent in intensive care.

Dr Alison Leaf, a consultant neonatologist at the Princess Anne Hospital, has published research into the effects of beginning feeding within two days of birth.

Clinicians often delay feeding babies who are both premature and underweight with milk as they are vulnerable to severe health problems including necrotising enterocolitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the gut tissue most common in babies receiving milk feeds.

However, the Abnormal Doppler Enteral Prescription Trial study, co-ordinated by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford and funded by charity Action Medical Research, found babies benefited from starting milk feeds within 24 and 48 hours, alongside intravenous feeding.

“Good nutrition and growth is very important, however, these babies’ body organs, including the bowel, are immature – they are a challenge to feed,” said Dr Leaf, who led the project with Professor Peter Brocklehurst, director of the institute for women’s health at University College London.

Dr Leaf added that starting milk feeds later also has risks, particularly of infection and inflammation in the liver.

More than 400 premature babies from 54 hospitals across the UK and Ireland were involved in the study, which is described as the largest to date on this subject.

The results were published in journal Pediatrics.