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Bradford doctor leads pioneering breastfeeding study
A Bradford doctor hopes a study he led into a potentially-deadly condition in babies will lead to better support for women who breastfeed.
Dr Sam Oddie, a consultant neonatologist at Bradford Royal Infirmary, was in charge of the world’s first study to find out how many breastfed babies fall dangerously ill after failing to take in enough milk.
He has a long-standing interest in the condition called hypernatraemic dehydration after coming across a severe case earlier in his career.
The condition causes levels of salt in the baby's blood to rise dramatically and if left untreated can lead to seizures, brain damage or even death.
But the study, which covered 93.8 per cent of all 880,000 live births, concluded, contrary to worldwide reports, that hypernatraemic dehydration occurs less often than previously suggested and no babies became very ill or died.
Dr Oddie said: “Our research shows this condition is strongly associated with problems in breast-milk transfer when babies fail to take in sufficient quantities of milk in the early days of life. Only one of the 62 cases had been exclusively formula-fed before developing the condition and 52 of the babies were first-borns, so the research shows this illness is intrinsically linked with first-time mums who may not realise their babies are ill.
“The positive news is that no babies got seriously ill or died, indicating that the management of diagnosed cases in hospital is good. All the babies in our study seem to have gone on to do well.”
Dr Oddie advocated starting breastfeeding early and said he hoped the study would lead to better support for breastfeeding mums. He also pointed to the importance of weighing babies.
He said: “Measures such as early initiation of breastfeeding, skilled helpers observing and supporting women breastfeeding, and targeting help in cases where feeding is difficult – such as where there is excess weight loss, decreased stool output or both – will both support the initiation of breastfeeding in general and find cases where a more serious problem may be developing. As far as I'm concerned, the answer isn't more formula feeding, but better support for breastfeeding from the outset.
“In our cases the weight loss, and subsequent weight gain in hospital after treatment, was striking and illustrates missed opportunities for prevention or early intervention.”
The study saw 3,000 consultants across the UK and Ireland asked, between May 2009 and June 2010, to report the number of babies they saw with severe hypernatraemia every four weeks for 13 months. It revealed that the rate of incidence of the illness was seven per 100,000 live births.
Dr Oddie said: “Prevention of this condition, or at least its early detection, should be a priority, both to minimise avoidable harms and distress of hospitalisation, but also to alleviate maternal and infant distress.”