Premature babies need to put weight on, growing three to four times their birth weight in the first year, but feeding them too early by mouth can cause a host of problems, from choking through pneumonia from inhaled milk to oral aversion (a fear of eating). These can keep them in the hospital for long periods, which means that costs climb and families are kept apart. A simple saliva marker could help to time the start of food by mouth, improving the outcome for the baby and his or her family, according to a study published in PLoS One.
Feeding comes naturally to most of us, but it is actually a complex mix of muscles, nerves, learned skills, feedback loops and cell signals. Premature babies are currently assessed to see if they are ready to feed by mouth based on whether they can suckle or swallow, as well as other signs, but these aren't always reliable.
"There's a really important need for a better understanding and a more accurate assessment of infants' feeding skills,'' said Dr. Jill L. Maron of the Mother Infant Research Institute at Tufts Medical Center. "No one had targeted this area of research because you can't ask a baby, are you hungry?"
A genetic marker from the hypothalamus, neuropeptide Y2 receptor (NPY2R), regulates feeding behavior and appetite, and is found in the saliva. Researchers from Tufts Medical Center screened 63 preterm and 13 full-term newborn babies for the marker, and found that its presence predicted the babies not ready for food by mouth correctly 95 percent of the time--levels fell once babies were able to take at least some of their feeds by mouth. This test is non-invasive and could improve the quality of life for babies and their families, and researchers are looking at adding in extra markers that could pick up other problems with feeding.