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Saturday, December 03, 2005When I first became a milk donor, I didn't really know much about why it was so important for some babies to have donor milk instead of formula. As a breastfeeding mother, I knew that breastmilk was the best nutrition, but I was also confident that formula was a perfectly fine alternative. It wasn't until I started doing some research and talking to the ladies that work at the milk bank that I learned just how vital breast milk is for extremely premature babies that must spend time in the NICU.
One of the primary reasons that human donor milk is preferred over formula is because it has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC). In fact, babies that receive breast milk instead of formula during their NICU stays are three to four times less likely to develop NEC than their formula fed counterparts.
What is Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC)?
The easiest way to understand it is to break the words down. Entero and Colo refer to the small and large intestine and "itis" implies inflammation. Necrotizing is the death of tissue. Thus, NEC is a disease that kills off an infants ability to digest via the large and small intestine. NEC is the most common gastrointestinal issue faced by extremely premature infants.
About 10% of babies that are born weighing less than three and a half pounds (1500 grams) will experience a bout of NEC. This happens because their bowels are usually underdeveloped and they are at a high risk of infection. The mortality rate for infants that contract NEC is about 25%.
NEC affects about 25,000 babies each year. Many within the medical profession believe that NEC is on the rise because modern technology has allowed us move back the birth date at which a baby has a chance of survival. Because we are now able to treat lung and nutritional needs of extremely premature infants, we have more surviving, thus giving the a chance to live long enough to contract the disease. In times past, the babies that are most susceptible to NEC would likely not have survived for very long past birth.
While breast milk has not been shown to cure NEC, it is known to help prevent it, which is why it's essential that we find a way to make sure each and every baby born at such a young age has a way to receive human milk. Many mothers have difficulty getting their milk to come in after such an early delivery which leaves donor milk or formula as the only option for many of these babies.
Spreading the Word
I've been amazed to find out how few people know that donor milk is an option. Just in the past week, I've heard of two women that are friends of friends that delivered their babies at extreme premature dates. (24 weeks and 28 weeks) In one case, the mother was encouraged to begin pumping immediately in order to provide her own milk for her baby during its stay in the NICU. In the other case, the mother was unable to express any milk and my friend didn't know if she was aware that donor milk was an option.
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America has an updated list on their site of all the milk banks in North America and the contact information for the center directors. This site is a wonderful resource to point people to if you happen to know someone that gives birth to a premature infant.