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Why Human Milk Plays an Essential Role in Preemie Development

For premature infants, receiving the right nutrients is critical. According to The National Coalition for Infant Health, a diet of only human milk and human milk-derived products is vital in boosting their immune systems, preventing GI infections and reducing respiratory complications. To qualify as an exclusive human milk diet, 100 percent of the protein, fat and carbohydrates must be derived solely from human milk. It may consist of breast milk from the infant’s mother, breast milk from a screened donor or a supplemental fortifier derived from human milk.

Preventing complications

An exclusive human milk diet can shield preemies from necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which causes a distended abdomen, respiratory failure and septic shock, the leading cause of death among preterm babies.

Neonatologist Amy Hair, MD, director of the neonatal nutrition program at Texas Children’s Hospital, tells PBS’s Innovations in Medicine, “There are studies that have been published recently that show an all human milk diet — no bovine or cow protein — decreases the rate of this horrible intestinal disease by 60 percent [for] medical NEC, and 90 percent for the type of disease that needs surgery.”

Looks can be deceiving

Because preemies require more protein, calcium and other minerals than what breast milk alone supplies, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends fortifying mother’s milk or pasteurized donor milk to ensure optimal nutrient intake for preemies weighing less than three pounds, five ounces. The labels, however, can be confusing as most commercial human milk fortifiers (HMFs) are made from cow milk.

With growing awareness of complications associated with cow milk nutrition, many NICUs are relying on an HMF made from 100 percent human donor milk as the standard of care for extremely premature (EP) infants.

The bottom line

In a study featured in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine, lead author Steven A. Abrams, MD, a Houston neonatologist, states that provision of an exclusively human milk diet during the early postnatal period is associated with lower risks of death, NEC, NEC requiring surgery and sepsis in EP infants.

“This analysis adds to the mounting evidence demonstrating that an exclusive human milk-based diet has the best health benefits and outcomes for [EP] infants.”

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