Effect of Increased Enteral Protein Intake on Growth in Human Milk-Fed Preterm Infants: A Randomized Clinical Trial

Christoph Maas, Michaela Mathes, Christine Bleeker, Julia Vek, Wolfgang Bernhard, Cornelia Wiechers, Andreas Peter, Christian F Poets, Axel R Franz
JAMA Pediatrics 2017 January 1, 171 (1): 16-22

Importance: Protein, supplied in currently available commercial fortifiers, may be inadequate to meet the requirements of very preterm infants; in addition, intraindividual and interindividual variability of human milk protein and energy content potentially contribute to unsatisfactory early postnatal growth.

Objective: To determine effects on growth of different levels of enteral protein supplementation in predominantly human milk-fed preterm infants.

Design, Setting, and Participants: This randomized clinical and partially blinded single-center trial was conducted in a neonatal tertiary referral center in Germany. Sixty preterm infants (gestation <32 weeks and weight <1500 g at birth) were recruited from October 2012 to October 2014 and included 35% of 173 eligible infants. Median (interquartile range [IQR]) gestational age at birth was 29.9 (28.7-31.2) weeks. All analyses were conducted in an intention-to-treat population.

Interventions: Infants were randomly assigned to either a lower-protein (adding 1 g of bovine protein/100 mL of breast milk through a commercial human milk fortifier; n = 30) or a higher-protein group at a median (IQR) postnatal age of 7 (6-8) days. The higher-protein group (n = 30) received either standardized higher-protein supplementation (study fortifier adding 1.8 g of bovine protein/100 mL of breast milk [n = 15]) or individualized high-protein supplementation based on protein and fat content of administered breast milk (n = 15). Study interventions were continued for a median (IQR) of 41 (30-57) days and until definite discharge planning.

Main Outcomes and Measures: Primary outcome was weight gain (g/kg/d) from birth to the end of intervention.

Results: Sixty preterm infants (gestation <32 weeks and weight <1500 g at birth), 33 girls, were recruited from October 2012 to October 2014 and included 35% of 173 eligible infants. Median (IQR) gestational age at birth was 29.9 (28.7-31.2) weeks. Demographic characteristics and hospital courses were similar in both groups, and birth weights ranged from 580 to 1495 g in the lower-protein group and 490 to 1470 g in the higher-protein group. Weight gain was similar in the lower- and higher-protein groups: mean (95% CI), 16.3 g/kg/d (15.4-17.1 g/kg/d) in the lower-protein group vs 16.0 g/kg/d (15.1-16.9 g/kg/d) in the higher-protein group) (P = .70), despite an increase in actual protein intake by 0.6 g/kg/d (0.4-0.7 g/kg/d) (P < .001). Head circumference and lower leg longitudinal growth were also similar, as was the proportion of cumulative total enteral feeding volume provided as breast milk: median (IQR) proportion of breast milk, 92% (79%-98%) in the lower-protein group vs 94% (62%-99%) in the higher-protein group (P = .89).

Conclusions and Relevance: An increase in protein intake by 0.6 g/kg/d to a mean intake of 4.3 g/kg/d did not further enhance growth of very preterm infants with a median birth weight of 1200 g, who achieved near-fetal growth rates. This might point to a ceiling effect for enteral protein intake with respect to its influence on growth.

Trial Registration: Identifier: NCT01773902.

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