Why are Māori preterm babies less likely to get breast milk?

Why are preterm babies less likely to get breast milk if they’re Māori?

That question has emerged from research by the University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute into nutrition for preterm babies.

Māori preterm babies who were receiving intravenous fluids had the lowest odds of transitioning to breast milk in hospital, according to a study of 151 babies born at 32- to 35-weeks’ gestation.

The mothers all aimed for their babies to be fed on breast milk, rather than infant formula, once the children got off intravenous fluids, said Tanith Alexander, a PhD student and paediatric dietitian.

For 57% of the Māori babies, 13 out of 23, that didn’t happen.
For 70% of the Caucasian babies, 35 out of 50, it did.

Pacific babies also fared better than Māori babies by this measure.

Breast feeding has been linked to a range of health benefits, including decreased rates of sudden unexplained infant death, respiratory disease and childhood obesity. It’s especially important for preterm babies, who have greater risks of health problems than children born after 37 weeks.

Researchers plan more study to investigate the exact causes of the disparity

When the mothers and babies in the study were discharged from hospital, the proportion of Māori women who weren’t breastmilk feeding was higher than for Caucasian women, according to Alexander.

“Now, more study is needed to investigate the exact causes of these disparities,” said Professor Frank Bloomfield, the head of the Liggins Institute.

“We need quality initiatives to support and encourage mothers to provide breast milk, with a specific focus on Māori mothers,” Alexander said.

The data add to evidence of unequal outcomes for Māori health across a whole host of measures, including life-spans.

Researcher Tanith Alexander

The research, which will be published in a forthcoming paper, began in 2017 and is being expanded with the addition of more mothers and babies.

Alexander detailed her research at 'Survive to thrive: Feeding New Zealand’s preterm babies' a free public lecture and webinar which also featured Professor Bloomfield and paediatric dietitian Dr Barbara Cormack. Her work is supported by the Health Research Council and Counties Manukau Health.

Media contact

Paul Panckhurst | media adviser
M: 022 032 8475
E: paul.panckhurst@auckland.ac.nz