A different diet may just be what premature babies need to stay healthy, researchers say.
A major new study from the University of Auckland hopes to figure out if preterm babies can be helped in later life through what they're fed in their first days of life.
About 5000 babies are born prematurely in New Zealand each year and while the vast majority survive, they are more prone to problems with diseases in later life, growth, learning and obesity.
The researchers say preterm babies have difficulty breastfeeding safely and they want to trial 500 babies born in Auckland to see what kind of nutritional supplements may get them living off their mothers' milk as fast as possible.
They said hospitals have guidelines for feeding babies born before 32 weeks, but there is little information about what to do for those born between 32 and 36 weeks and practices varied widely between hospitals.
"Nutrition offers the simplest and least expensive way of improving long-term health outcomes for these babies," lead researcher Professor Frank Bloomfield said.
"It's the first step towards personalised medicine for preterm babies."
He said the project, funded by $5 million from the Health Research Council, also hoped to see whether breast milk differed if women had a boy or a girl.
"We know that preterm boys don't do as well as preterm girls," he said.
"Currently boys and girls are fed the same. But boys and girls have known metabolic differences."