When a baby is born prematurely, he or she often faces plenty of health battles ahead. But a new study finds that human milk fat, when used in a cream supplement, could improve the growth and development of premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Feeding a premature baby an exclusive human milk diet has been shown to protect the infant’s intestines, as well as provide other health benefits. Breast milk provides all babies — and especially premature ones — with crucial calories, vitamins, and protein. Preemies also face a higher risk of infection due to an under-developed immune system, and the live cells in breast milk help strengthen them against infection. Baby formulas or supplements designed for preemies aren’t as effective. Often, babies born too early are too immature to suckle milk from the breast directly, so NICU infants are given breast milk through a nasogastric tube.

The study, carried out at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, was published in Journal of Pediatrics. Researchers found that in addition to providing premature babies with a mother’s breast milk or a “fortifier” containing protein and minerals from human donor milk, adding a byproduct from pasteurized donor milk — milk fat — to the mix could significantly boost the child’s growth. In short, providing premature babies with a mix of protein and fat — most of which can be found in human milk — could help them grow into regular kids.

“For premature babies who weigh less than 1,000 grams (about 2 pounds, 2 ounces), one of the problems is that their lungs and other organs are still developing when they are born,” Dr. Amy Hair, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor and an author of the study, said in the press release. “If the infant gains weight and increases in length at a good rate while in the NICU, this helps improve their outcomes.”

Previously, scientists attempted to give premature infants oils or infant formula in the hopes of them growing. “This is a natural way to give them fat,” Hair said, noting that premature babies can’t be given more volume necessarily; but rather they need more calories in lesser volumes. “[W]e can now use a natural source from donor milk.” She added that babies were growing in both weight and length when given milk fat.

Any baby born before the 37th week is considered premature. The earlier a baby is born, the higher the chance the baby will have serious health complications, such as respiratory distress syndrome, apnea, anemia, infection, or retinopathy. If a baby is born between 28 and 33 weeks, he or she will have a much greater chance of survival — up to 95 percent.

Hair urges mothers to donate extra breast milk to a milk bank: “It can help nourish our tiniest and most vulnerable infants,” she said in the press release.