August is National Breastfeeding Month, and a time to acknowledge that in the first months of life, a mother’s milk is the ideal food for babies. That’s because breast milk imparts a multitude of health benefits to newborns that formula alone cannot. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that mothers breastfeed for a baby’s first 12 months of life. While it’s true that not every mother is able to feed her baby her milk, those who can should be encouraged to do so.
Getting their newborns a diet of breast milk is particularly challenging for mothers of preemies because their babies can’t eat from the breast right after birth. Yet ironically, it is even more critical that these babies receive mother’s milk. That’s why, in spring 2012, Sinai became the first hospital in Maryland to offer its smallest patients a diet of 100% human breast milk. Thanks to the opening of a milk bank, the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) gives mothers of premature infants who weigh less than 1,250 grams – about 2.75 pounds – the option of feeding their babies with donor breast milk if they are unable to provide their own.
However, because human breast milk lacks enough calories, phosphorus and calcium for infants with gestational ages of 34 weeks or younger, it must be treated with a fortifier. Similar to baby formula, this fortifier is usually made from cow’s milk, but Sinai is now using a fortifier made completely from human milk.
“Premature infants are particularly at risk for developing NEC, or necrotizing enterocolitis, if they consume anything other than human breast milk,” says Melinda Elliott, M.D., a neonatologist who helped spearhead Sinai’s human milk initiative.
NEC is a dangerous condition that can lead to death of intestinal tissue, and nearly a quarter of infants who contract NEC do not survive. However, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found a 77 percent decrease in NEC cases when babies were fed breast milk enriched with a human milk fortifier rather than with a cow’s milk fortifier. Since Sinai made a 100 percent human milk diet available, there have not been any instances of feeding intolerance among the dozen NICU infants who have benefited so far.
Sinai receives its donor milk from the Mothers’ Milk Bank of California, based in San Jose and part of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. Donor milk is thoroughly screened, tested and pasteurized. The state of Maryland regulates human breast milk as a tissue, so Sinai’s blood bank had to apply for and was granted an addition to its permit to be allowed to handle donor milk. The blood bank carefully acquires, stores and administers this milk, and parents must sign consent for their infants to receive donor milk.
“In addition to a lower incidence of NEC, human breast milk gives premature infants better developmental outcomes,” says Elliott. “Studies have shown that later on in life, premature infants who were fed breast milk perform higher on IQ tests.”
Learn more about this topic by visiting the BirthPlace at Sinai.
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