The benefits of breastfeeding are shown time and time again, but a recent study suggests these perks may be especially important for preterm babies. According to research, preterm babies who are fed breast milk within the first 28 days of their lives had larger brains, better IQs, performed better in school, and had better memory and motor functions at age seven than preterm infants who received less breastmilk. But, if you are unable to produce breast milk for you child, worry not; there are other options.

The study found that preterm infants born before 30 weeks gestation who received breast milk as more than 50 percent of their total nutritional intake from birth to 28 days old had more brain volume and better cognitive and motor skills by age seven than preterm infants who received less breast milk. However, while the benefits of breast milk may be most apparent in at-risk preterm infants, the study found that all infants who received predominantly breast milk diets during the early days of their lives went on to develop more gray brain matter — an area that plays an important role in processing and transmitting neural signals to other parts of the brain. All infants who were predominantly fed breast milk also performed better in IQ, mathematics, working memory, and motor function tests at age seven — than those who were not.

These findings are based on the results of 180 preterm infants who were enrolled in the Victorian Infant Brain Studies Cohort from 2001 to 2003. According to a recent statement, the researchers admit that a major limitation of the study is that it was purely observational. For example, although they adjusted for factors such as differences in maternal education, some of the effects could possibly be explained by factors other than a breast-milk diet, such as greater maternal involvement in other aspects of infant care. Still, the study is just one of many that highlights the long-term benefits of breast milk in early infancy.

Although science may suggest that break milk has the best nutrition for an infant's developing brain, especially at-risk preterm infants, the team recognized that many mothers struggle to provide their babies with enough breast milk to sustain them.

"Many mothers of preterm babies have difficulty providing breastmilk for their babies, and we need to work hard to ensure that these mothers have the best possible support systems in place to maximize their ability to meet their own feeding goals,” explained lead study author Mandy Brown Belfort in a recent statement. “It's also important to note that there are so many factors that influence a baby's development, with breast milk being just one," says Belfort.

For women who are unable to produce enough breast milk, but would still like their child to benefit from a breast-milk diet, there is the option of utilizing breast milk banks. These “ banks” are online communities where women can both donate and receive breast milk. Unlike online breast-milk sharing communities, milk banks ensure that the donated milk upholds the highest levels of hygiene to ensure for a both happy and healthy baby.

Source: Belfort MB, Anderson PJ, Nowak VA. Breast Milk Feeding, Brain Development, and Neurocognitive Outcomes: A 7-Year Longitudinal Study in Infants Born at Less Than 30 Weeks' Gestation. The Journal of Pediatrics . 2016