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Very premature babies are usually fed nutrients either intravenously or given milk via a tube directly into their stomach because they cannot suckle. New research suggests babies who taste and smell milk during tube feeding may help their brain growth.

The randomised clinical trial was undertaken by Mater Research and The University of Queensland set out to show that tasting and smelling milk would increase weight gain but study lead, Mater Researcher and senior specialist in Neonatology at Mater Mothers Hospital in Brisbane, Dr Friederike Beker, said the results did not show this.

“We found very premature babies who were allowed to smell and taste milk at the same time as they were being tube fed, recorded slightly larger head circumference measurements and body length at 36 weeks compared to babies that didn’t get the sensory stimulation,” she said.

“…an increase in head circumference is better associated with improved long-term neurodevelopment outcomes than weight gain in preterm infants.”

Dr Beker said while the head circumference and length scores were not greater at discharge from hospital, the difference at 36 weeks was significant.

“We know optimal head growth is not achieved solely through the provision of good nutrition alone and few, if any, interventions have previously been known to improve it,” she said.

“These findings raise questions about if smell and taste should be incorporated into the regular care of very preterm babies, because they may be stimulating appetite which in turn could be assisting in some developmental areas.”

The trial involved 330 premature babies who were born between 23- and 28-weeks’ gestation and had a birth weight of between 500 grams and 1,400 grams.

The results were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.