According to a study by researchers at Rush University Medical Center, feeding human breast milk to very low birth weight babies — babies who weigh less than 3 pounds, 4 ounces at birth — greatly reduces their risk of sepsis and lowers associated neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) costs.
Sepsis, a bacterial blood infection, is one of the leading causes of infant death, and it can leave babies vulnerable to long-term complications. In addition, the disease significantly raises NICU costs due to treatment and longer hospital stays.
The study, published Jan. 31, 2013, online in the Journal of Perinatology, showed that during the first 28 days of life, feeding roughly one-third of an ounce of breast milk each day for every 2.2 pounds that these babies weigh decreased the odds of sepsis by nearly 20 percent.
"Breast milk may help very low birth weight babies get off to a strong start in life by decreasing their chances of developing this harmful disease," says Aloka Patel, MD, lead author of the study and a neonatologist at Rush.
Rush’s donor breast milk program began in April. "At Rush, whenever mother's own breast milk is not available or the mother is unable to provide enough breast milk, this program will help provide donor milk until an infant reaches 34 weeks," Patel says.
The donor milk is obtained from human milk banks, which receive milk from lactating mothers who have been carefully screened for health behaviors and communicable diseases, following guidelines developed by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA).
Milk from several donors is pooled together after thawing, and then it's pasteurized to kill any bacteria or viruses, tested to ensure absence of bacteria and then refrozen. Frozen donor milk is transported from the milk bank to hospitals. HMBANA currently serves hospitals in 39 states and 264 cities.
Breast milk may help very low birth weight babies get off to a strong start in life by decreasing their chances of developing [sepsis].
Pasteurized donor milk retains many of the beneficial components found in mothers' own milk, which protect the infants from infection. The nutritional parts of donor milk are also easy for the infants to digest.
"In addition to the donor milk program, Rush has a Mothers' Milk Club, which provides intensive lactation support to the mothers of our very low birth weight babies," Patel says. "Mothers' own breast milk is the best nutrition for all infants because it promotes important health benefits right after birth and later in life, and donated breast milk is the next best thing. That's why Rush started this vital program."
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