In humans, growth and development continues until early adulthood when bone, muscle, and nervous tissue reaches final stages of maturity. Adequate levels of nutritional intake and utilization are critical to optimize ongoing growth. The goal of nutritional therapy for premature or ill neonates has been to provide sufficient nutrients to allow growth to continue at rates seen in utero. Functional immaturity of the gut in the premature infant makes absorption and utilization of nutritional substrates difficult.
Premature infants are at risk for developing necrotizing enterocolitis, a potentially lethal bowel disorder. The etiology of necrotizing enterocolitis is not well understood, and a number of theories of causation have been proposed. Breast milk, the optimal source of nutrition for the neonate, is believed to confer some protection against necrotizing enterocolitis. A number of breast milk components have been credited with antiinflammatory properties.
Breast milk is recognized for its benefits, yet for preterm infants breast milk alone does not promote adequate growth. A number of breast milk supplements have been investigated to facilitate growth and development and to prevent necrotizing enterocolitis.
This article addresses development of the fetal gastrointestinal system, focusing on the biological mediators for normal function and the role of human breast milk and its additives in optimizing neonatal growth. The possible etiologies of necrotizing enterocolitis are discussed in terms of the relationship between this disease and enteral feeding practices.