Breast Milk Protein Protects Preemies From Infection: Study
We know breast milk can offer baby powerful protection from illnesses like the cold, flu, allergies, asthma and even leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease. But on top of being born without important protective bacteria, some premature infants can’t be nursed right away—which means their infection-fighting abilities are severely weakened. Now, a study out of the University of Missouri suggests that a manufactured form of lactoferrin, a protein naturally found in breast milk, could be a key ingredient in helping preemies ward off staph infection.
A breakthrough in protecting premature infants from staph would be huge. Depending on the hospital and baby’s gestational age and birth weight, 15 to 35 percent of preemies in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) will develop an infection—and about 50 percent of those are caused by staph, lead study author Michael Sherman, MD, tells The Bump.
Staph is a bacteria that lives on our skin and is harmless to most healthy children—but if it enters a preemie’s bloodstream, it can be disastrous. And it so happens that the skin of preterm babies is heavily colonized by staph.
“Skin staph have a slime covering them that allows them to stick to catheters, breathing tubes and other medical devices used in an intensive care nursery,” Sherman says, explaining this can easily lead to infection. “These germs can also release toxins in the lungs and intestines that damage the lining of these organs, causing inflammation.”
During the study, Sherman and his team of researchers analyzed the immune systems of 120 premature infants in the NICU who had very low birth weights. Half of those babies received the lactoferrin protein from a feeding tube twice a day for 28 days—and were found to have no trace of the germs responsible for a type of staph infection known as staphylococcus epidermidis. The results of the study were recently published in The Journal of Pediatrics.
Researchers are calling for deeper studies to help shed more light on lactoferrin’s role in developing babies’ immune systems.
“These vulnerable babies need all the support they can get to fight off infections,” Sherman says.
Having a preemie in the NICU is one of the most stressful experiences new parents can go through. Hear what helped other moms handle those difficult days.