More Hospitals to Offer Donor Breast Milk to Preemies

According to recent research, California hospitals that offer donated breast milk to nurse premature babies has risen dramatically, and it's doing babies good.

More Hospitals to Offer Donor Breast Milk to Preemies Eyalos/Shutterstock

According to recent research, more hospitals are giving premature babies breast milk instead of formula—and the shift seems to be doing the babies a lot of good.

The researchers found a significant increase in the number of California hospitals utilizing this practice during a six-year period. According to their findings, about 41 percent of newborn intensive care units offered donated breast milk in 2013, a dramatic increase from 21 percent, which was the rate in 2007. There was also in increase in the number of women who began breastfeeding before their children were discharged from the hospital.

Benefits of breast milk?

The change might be helping babies stay healthy in those first days of life. According to the research, infants were half as likely to develop a gut infection called necrotizing enterocoloitis, which is a serious illness that can cause inflammation, injury to the intestines and even death. The timing works out, but there's no guarantee that breast milk was responsible for this positive change, according to researcher Henry Lee, M.D.

"This doesn't prove cause-and-effect," Dr. Lee said. "But it's good to see correlations going in this direction."

According to Dr. Lee, there has been fear that feeding a baby donor milk might impede the mother's ability to breastfeed—but according to Dr. Lee, these findings suggest otherwise. Breastfeeding can be especially tough for women who give birth prematurely and while mothers can use a breast pump to collect milk to be fed to their premature infants in NICUs, they often can't produce enough milk at that time. That's why donated breast milk could be a good option for these babies.

Donating milk

Mothers who produce excess milk can donate milk after they're screened for diseases like HIV and hepatitis. The milk is pasteurized, tested for bacteria and then given to infants in need of milk.

Lydia Furman, M.D., wrote an editorial to accompany this piece of research, calling the move to give infants donated breast milk an indication of broader progress. "It takes a coordinated program to make donor milk available," Dr. Furman said. "And that kind of coordination probably happens in NICUs where the value of mothers' milk is greatly appreciated."