November is Prematurity Awareness Month and I wanted to take the opportunity to discuss the impact breast milk can have on the lives of preemies.
Human milk is important for the optimal growth and development of full-term babies, but it’s even more important for babies born prematurely. Mothers who pump breast milk for their preemies provide their babies with milk especially formulated for preemie development. This is why I decided to do all I could to nurse my micro preemie after her birth.
My daughter Joy was born at 23 weeks gestation in 2012 and weighed just 1 pound and 4 ounces. At first we were not sure if she would survive. The neonatologists and nurses sat me down to explain how important it was for me to pump breast milk for her. They told me about how the digestive organs of a premature baby often cannot handle formula and that by giving my daughter breast milk, I may be able to increase her immune response and also allow her tiny intestines and stomach the time they needed to get stronger. That was all I needed to hear.
After trying and failing to nurse my three previous full term sons, I decided I had to do everything possible to provide my premature daughter with breast milk. It was not easy. Sometimes I would pump for 45 minutes and only get about 3ounces, but due to her small weight, that was enough to sustain her for a while. At one point she was only receiving 3 ml of breast milk an hour!
It was a huge commitment to pump for my daughter. She spent 4 months in the NICU and I would have to pump every 2 to 3 hours to keep up my own milk supply. This meant that I had to frequently leave my daughter’s bedside for 30 minutes at a time to go and pump. I felt guilty not spending all of my time with her while I was at the hospital. This also meant that I could not spend a lot of time with my other three children because I had to interrupt our time together and pump every 2 to 3 hours as well. I felt guilty no matter what I did, until I understood that the breast milk I was providing for my premature daughter most likely was saving her life.
The milk produced by the mother of a premature baby is higher in protein than the milk produced by the mother of a full term infant. Human milk also contains lipase, an enzyme that allows the baby to digest fat more efficiently.
Studies have shown that breastfed preemies are less likely to develop infections that are common to babies who are fed formula. If your baby is preterm, her organs are not as developed as they should be. Her intestines and stomach are even smaller and less mature than the tiny, immature gut of a full-term baby.This puts preemies at risk for a number of diseases within the first weeks of life.
One of these diseases is necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). NEC is the most common and serious intestinal disease among preemies born before 32 weeks gestation. A baby is at a higher risk of developing NEC between 2 and 4 weeks after birth.
NEC develops when tissue in the small or large intestine is injured or begins to die off. This causes the intestine to become inflamed or, in rare cases, develop a hole (perforation).
Once NEC has developed, the intestine can no longer hold waste, so bacteria can pass through the intestine and enter the baby’s bloodstream or abdominal cavity. This causes a serious infection and babies with NEC can get very sick. Most babies with NEC will be put on antibiotics and require surgery to remove the infected part of their intestines. These babies may end up with feeding difficulties as they grow, due to shortened intestines. NEC can also cause fatalities when surgery cannot repair the damage or if the infection is not caught in its early stages. Roughly 30 % of premature babies will not survive NEC.
There is not a vaccine or one particular thing a parent can do to prevent their preemie from getting NEC. However, preemies that are fed breast milk may be at a lower risk of developing it. Studies conducted by researchers at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles demonstrate that a protein called neuregulin-4 (NRG4) — present in breast milk, but absent from formula — may be protective against the intestinal destruction caused in NEC.
Prolacta Bioscience created the world’s first and only human milk caloric fortifier made from pasteurized human milk cream. Neonatologists will typically fortify human breast milk so that breast fed preemies can gain the necessary weight to help them develop quicker. Fortifiers add extra fats and protein to the breast milk to allow for this. Prolacta Bioscience was able to make this breast milk fortifier with real human breast milk, which can only add to the natural immunity and protection that breast milk offers premature babies. This is a comfort to mothers who want to exclusively breast feed their babies but also understand that premature babies need the fortifier to help them grow better and faster.
The Morgan Leary Vaughan Fund is an all-volunteer, public charity dedicated to promoting public awareness about NEC and the potentially devastating effects it can have on preemies and their families, and to advancing research to prevent, diagnose, treat, and ultimately, cure NEC. As a member of their advisory board, I am proud of the work they have done so far and I look forward to what they will do in the future.
The Morgan Leary Vaughan Fund just had their inaugural event and it was fabulous! Many people came out to support the fight against NEC. The event was held at Two Roads Brewery in Stratford, CT. There was music, raffles, great food and great beer! Every person in the room has the same goal- to raise money for research that will prevent future premature babies from getting NEC. And we all agree that the first step is giving our babies a human milk diet.
If a mother can produce enough breast milk to allow her premature baby to grow, she may be giving her baby a greater gift than just growth; she may be giving her a better chance at life!
Click HERE for more information on The Morgan Leary Vaughan Fund
Click HERE for more information on Prolacta Bioscience
The miracle preemies below are the reason why The Morgan Leary Vaughan Fund exists today and the reason I am now an advocate for preemies and prevention!