AUGUSTA, Ga. – In order to optimize nutrition for its most vulnerable newborns, the Georgia Health Sciences Children’s Medical Center has opened a Milk Lab in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to process and store breast milk for premature babies.
“Breast milk is a baby’s first vaccine, and is especially important for the premature baby,” said NICU Nurse Amy Gates, a pediatric nutritionist. “In the very first days of a baby’s life, there are more white cells in the mother’s milk than there are in blood. Mom’s milk acts like an ‘anti-antibiotic.’ Instead of treating these babies for infections – which they are more susceptible to because they are underdeveloped – we give them something that helps prevent these infections in the first place,” said Gates.
A dedicated milk lab technician typically processes and stores breast milk for about 25 NICU babies a day at the CMC. Many of the babies weigh less than 3 pounds.
“Babies this small cannot go to mother’s breast. They can’t latch on yet, and they don’t have the ability to suck, swallow, breathe,” said Gates. “So the breast milk has to be expressed, or pumped, by the mother and stored in the Milk Lab for the baby’s feedings.”
Mother’s first milk, which is called colostrum, is swabbed inside the baby’s mouth. After that, the breast milk is administered through a tiny white feeding tube, which is about the thickness of a strand of angel hair pasta. This line is inserted through the baby’s nose or mouth, and the babies are fed about 1 ½ milliliters or about one-fourth of a teaspoonful of milk every three hours.
The benefits of breast milk for the premature baby include:
• Decreasing the need for intravenous fluids, also called parental nutrition, which can cause liver and bone damage over time
• Reducing the risk of NEC infection (bowel breakdown) and other digestive problems
• Improving growth and development
• Reducing vomiting and spitting up
“The babies aren’t just small, they are immature,” said Dr. Jatinder Bhatia, chief of the Section of Neonatology at Georgia Health Sciences University’s Medical College of Georgia and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition. “Their systems are not fully developed, and they don’t have the capacity to break down the more complex fats and proteins in a cow’s milk diet.”
Two years ago, only about one-fourth of CMC NICU patients were being fed breast milk exclusively. Today, more than three-fourths of the moms are providing breast milk to their babies.
“There are no therapies or medications that we can provide that will match what mother can provide. A baby should be connected to a placenta, but that’s been removed. So we do the next best thing and help mother provide what only she can produce that is specifically designed for her baby,” Bhatia said.
For moms who are unable to provide breast milk for any reason, donor milk can be acquired though the Human Milk Banking Association of America.