The importance of smell and taste in very premature baby development

Tuesday 10 August 2021

A newly published study by Mater Research and The University of Queensland has found giving very premature babies the chance to taste and smell milk during tube feeding, may help their brain growth.

The results of the randomised control trial have been published today, 10th August, in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Very premature babies are usually fed nutrients either intravenously or given milk via a tube directly into their stomach because they cannot suckle.

Mater Researcher and senior specialist in Neonatology at Mater Mothers’ Hospital in Brisbane, Dr Friederike Beker, said the study results were surprising.

“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,” said Dr Beker, who is also affiliated with The University of Queensland Faculty of Medicine.

“We’d originally set out to examine if giving very preterm babies the chance to taste and smell their milk would help them to gain more weight, but our results didn’t show that.

“The results are still promising though, because 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 randomised clinical trial was conducted at the Mater Mothers’ Hospital in Brisbane and the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne which have two of the largest neonatal Intensive care units in Australia.

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 1400 grams.

Dr Beker first started to explore the role of taste and smell in premature baby development seven years ago when her partner, Chef Jan Gundlach reminded her that even preterm infants could taste and would probably appreciate food. Jan was the founder and Chef at Pasteio-Pasta and Dolcetti in Brisbane.

Dr Beker’s research was funded by the Mater Foundation through a Betty McGrath Fellowship and The Royal Australasian College of Physicians and Paediatricians, Queensland Branch.

The research findings can be accessed on the JAMA Pediatrics website. The DOI is 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.2336