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Recent studies have suggested a potential link between infant formulas like Similac and Enfamil and necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a dangerous bacterial disease—when the formulas are given to premature infants.

Now a new study published in Pediatrics and Child Health shows that breast milk is best for preterm and low birth weight infants, as it reduces the risk of NEC.

Meanwhile, formula manufacturers including Abbot Laboratories (Similac) and Mead Johnson (Enfamil) are facing lawsuits filed by parents after their premature infants developed NEC.

New Study Confirms Link Between Infant Formula and NEC

For the study, researchers compared the medical records of neonates who received pasteurized donor human milk (PDHM) to those who received formula. Gestational age and birth weight were similar for both groups.

The results showed that compared to the PDHM group, formula-fed neonates were more likely to be transferred to a tertiary care NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) for concerns of suspected NEC (8.9 percent vs. 3.1 percent).

The neonates receiving PDHM also had a higher daily weight gain, though they were also more likely to receive additional calorie supplementation. The scientists concluded that the data “support the current literature that infants who receive formula are at increased risk for transfer for suspected NEC compared to those who receive PDHM.”

Why Might Infant Formula Increase the Risk of NEC?

NEC is a bacterial disease that infects, inflames, damages, and kills the cells in parts or all of the intestines. It’s rare overall, affecting only about one in 2,000-4,000 births. But studies have found that it’s more common in premature infants fed infant formula.

In a 1990 study, for instance, scientists found that in exclusively formula-fed babies, NEC was 6-10 times more common than in those fed breast milk alone, and three times more common in those who received formula plus breast milk.

In 2011, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions found that extremely premature babies fed human donor milk were less likely to develop NEC than those fed a standard premature infant formula derived from cow’s milk.

Several other studies came to the same conclusion. As to why formula may increase risk, scientists aren’t sure. They believe that because premature infants have intestines that can’t protect themselves as well as more developed infants. Human milk adds protection, reducing inflammation and bacterial invasion, but cow’s milk may encourage the proliferation of damaging bacteria.

Infant Formula Manufacturers Facing NEC Lawsuits

Infant formula manufacturers are now facing dozens of baby formula NEC lawsuits, with plaintiffs alleging that the manufacturers failed to provide adequate warnings about the risk of NEC. Had the manufacturers been more forthcoming, more premature and low birth weight babies may have been fed human milk, which could have saved them from experiencing NEC.

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