The power of breast milk continues to amaze me. From brain development to immunoprotection, doctors and researchers continue to discover new properties that reaffirm the magic and mystery of mother’s milk. In addition to providing optimal nutrition, breast milk is especially beneficial for preterm and low birthweight babies as it reduces the incidence of Necrotizing Entercolitis (NEC), a common but potentially life-threatening complication of prematurity.
NEC is an intestinal disease that causes swelling of the bowels. Uncontrolled NEC can cause damage and even tissue death within the bowel, potentially resulting in surgery and both short and long term GI complications. Clinical studies have shown that the incidence of NEC is significantly reduced in preterm and low birthweight babies that are fed breast milk versus formula. Unlike formula, breast milk is rich in antibodies, enzymes, probiotics, and other biological components that provide protective benefits for a preemie’s immature GI system. As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an exclusive human milk-based diet for premature babies.
Unfortunately, there may be circumstances that restrict a preemie’s access to his own mother’s milk, such as maternal health complications or limited milk supply. For these babies, donor breast milk is a viable option for providing the GI-protective benefits and overall nutritional support that are unique to human milk.
With my firstborn child, I was able to begin breastfeeding within an hour of her birth. However, a complicated emergency c-section with my triplets delayed my breastfeeding efforts by more than two days. I remember the panic that I felt after finally emerging from my post-anesthesia fog and realizing that I was so far behind with my pumping efforts. Yet I was determined to do the best that I could to produce the breast milk that I knew they so desperately needed.
On Day 3, we met with the neonatologist who informed us that all three babies were ready to begin trophic feeds, which are very small volume feedings aimed at priming the GI tract. Wow, so soon? Although I was happy to hear that the babies were well enough to begin feedings, I was so disappointed in myself as I had yet to produce any milk or even colostrum for them to begin their feedings. I felt that I had failed them yet again.
Then, the neonatologist said something that immediately lifted a huge weight from my shoulders. He told me that our NICU had just begun participation in a breast milk donor program through Prolacta BioScience and that our babies could receive donor breast milk with our consent. Before he could even finish his sentence, I replied with an emphatic yes! And so, our triplets were blessed with the gift of donor breast milk.
Although they only needed donor breast milk for a few days, I feel that those few days made all the difference in giving them the healthiest start for their NICU journey. They received an exclusive breast milk diet and did not experience NEC or any other prematurity-related infections throughout their NICU course.
To the mother who donated her breast milk: I am forever grateful to you and think of you often. I’ll never know your story; whether you donated your milk due to an abundant supply or due to the loss of your own child. Regardless of the reason, your heart was so genuine and your gesture so meaningful.
Thank you for the gift of health that you extended to my children and the gift of time that you extended to me. You literally stood in the gap for me, allowing my body time to recover and begin producing the blessing of mother’s milk for my own children. Your selfless act lit a candle in the dark for three fragile preemies that are now thriving as a result. As my babies grow older, I will tell them how a selfless gift from someone that they will never meet was one of the most priceless gifts that they will ever receive.
** For more information on breast milk donation, please visit Prolacta Bioscience and the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. For more information on necrotizing entercolitis (NEC), please visit the NEC Society.