Local hospitals join forces to provide donated milk to newborn babies.
By Donna Burch
Researchers have long known that breast milk is the best food for newborns, but it’s even more critical for infants born prematurely.
Unfortunately, not every new mom of a preemie can provide an abundant supply of breast milk. Sometimes stress, illness and other factors affect a mother’s milk flow.
But new donor breast milk programs at several local hospitals are delivering this life-giving elixir to preemies when they need it most.
In the past, preemies whose moms couldn’t supply milk had to rely on formula during their first weeks of life, and that didn’t always lead to the best outcomes.
Researchers aren’t sure why, but preemies who are fed formula during the first four weeks of life are more likely to develop necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a severe inflammatory bowel condition that’s fatal in more than 50 percent of infants who develop it. In simple terms, NEC causes the bowel to become infected and develop gangrene.
“It kills babies, and it kills them very quickly,” says Ashlynn Baker, manager of The King’s Daughters Milk Bank in Norfolk. “The only thing we know to prevent it is a human milk diet.”
Infants who survive NEC often have lifelong digestive complications and sometimes require multiple surgeries.
Breast milk, on the other hand, has been shown to reduce NEC in preemies by up to 60 percent.
“If we can give them breast milk – whether [their] Mom provides part, all of it or none of it – and not have to supplement with formula for those first four weeks, it’s shown to have better outcomes for those very small babies,” says Denise Smith, nurse manager of St. Mary’s Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU.
Last May, HCA’s Johnston-Willis and Chippenham hospitals became the first Richmond area medical centers to offer donor breast milk in their NICUs, followed by Bon Secours’ St. Mary’s Hospital in July. The Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU also is preparing to offer donor breast milk in its NICU in the near future.
All three health systems are partnering with The King’s Daughters Milk Bank at the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters. The milk bank, which is the first of its kind in the state, is fully accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.
“We would much rather give breast milk to a preterm baby rather than formula,” says Dr. Karen Wharton with Commonwealth Neonatology. “In addition to decreasing the risk of infection and NEC in premature infants, there are many other benefits that human breast milk provides. It is loaded with helpful growth hormones, improves eye and brain development and lessens the rates of obesity, allergies, certain cancers and diabetes in adulthood.”
Human breast milk is more easily tolerated by preemies’ still-developing digestive systems than formula.
“It appears that the human milk sort of matures the baby’s gut,” explains Nancy Raines, lactation consultant at Johnston-Willis and Chippenham hospitals. “That means there’s less time they have to get their feeding [supplemented] intravenously. It helps the babies move to regular feeding sooner.”
King’s Daughters started its donor milk bank last year and now provides donor breast milk to 20 NICUs along the East Coast.
The bank currently has more than 550 donors.
“The majority is just moms who make a lot of milk,” Baker says. “They have more milk than their babies need.”
Instead of that excess milk going to waste, it’s donated to the milk bank.
All donors are screened and recommended for the program by their obstetricians to ensure that the women are healthy and that their milk supply is abundant enough to donate. Each prospective donor is interviewed and undergoes blood testing to check for illnesses, drug use and other factors that might make her breast milk unusable.
Once accepted into the program, donors drop off their extra breast milk if they live locally in the Tidewater area, or out-of-town donors mail it to the milk bank using overnight shipping.
Location isn’t a barrier to becoming a donor. King’s Daughters has donors who live as far away as Kansas and New Jersey.
King’s Daughters pays all donor expenses, including blood testing and shipping.
Once the milk arrives at King’s Daughters, it is pasteurized and tested to meet a strict requirement for zero-bacteria growth. Then it’s bottled and frozen before being distributed to the King’s Daughters’ partner hospitals.
The milk is stored in freezers convenient to each hospital’s NICU until needed. Each batch includes milk from multiple mothers.
NICU families who want to use donor milk must sign a consent form.
“One ounce of donor milk can treat up to four babies, getting them home sooner, which is where they should be, in the arms of their moms and dads in their home, growing and thriving and having the best life possible,” Baker says.
For more information on the King’s Daughters’ donor milk bank, including information on how to become a donor, visit chkd.org/milk or call (757) 668-6455.