New research has shown that premature babies, unless they are extremely sick, can benefit from being given milk feeds at an earlier stage.

Current practice shies away from offering early feeds for fear it could contribute to a premature baby experiencing severe bowel problems. However a study co-ordinated by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford, which was funded by children's charity Action Medical Research and carried out at 54 hospitals across UK and Ireland, shows this not to be the case.

The authors of the paper, led by Dr Alison Leaf and Professor Peter Brocklehurst conclude that babies "would generally benefit from starting milk feeds within the first 24-48 hours after birth".

Dr Leaf, now based at the Princess Anne Hospital in Southampton, said: "These babies are a challenge to feed. Good nutrition and growth is very important, however their body organs, including the bowel, are immature.

Professor Brocklehurst, director of the Institute for Women's Health at University College London, added: "Early feeding appears to be better for these high risk babies. This research will enable more high risk premature babies to be fed early, and to achieve full feeding earlier.

"This will reduce the need for intravenous drips and infusions."

Jane Abbott, from the premature baby charity Bliss said: "We welcome this research [and] hope the findings will lead to changes in practice to ensure better outcomes for these babies and their families.

"Earlier discharge home not only frees up cot space but also means that the whole family can benefit as the emotional and financial stresses will be reduced."

The research team say their findings can be put into effect on special care baby units immediately.

Posted by Penny Hosie