For two years, The Women’s Hospital in Newburgh, Ind., has offered an innovative donor breast milk program for premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. Working with the program as a visiting research scholar with the Indiana University School of Medicine, I met local Evansville mother “Lisa” in the NICU just days after she gave birth to her premature son, “Noah.” Like many women who give birth to premature infants, Lisa had difficulty keeping up with the volumes of breast milk Noah required during his two-month stay in the NICU. She had never heard of donor breast milk before Noah was born, but was happy the extra milk provided by the Indiana Mother’s Milk Bank was available to make up the difference for her tiny boy.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says premature infants should be fed breast milk, and if a mother’s own breast milk is unavailable, the AAP recommends pasteurized donor milk from a human milk bank. Breast milk is the ideal food for infants, especially premature newborns. It helps mature their paper-thin gastrointestinal tract and is digested easier than formula.
I was impressed by Dr. Kenneth Herrmann’s commitment to the use of exclusive human milk feedings for premature infants under his care. He is the medical director for newborn services at The Women’s Hospital, and one of the founders of the donor milk program. He explains that feeding premature infants with either a mother’s own breast milk or donor milk helps prevent necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious, sometimes fatal gut infection.
“The chance of getting the infection increases when infants are born less than 1,200 grams (2.6 pounds),” says Herrmann. “And that’s when I’d prefer the babies to have breast milk feedings.” Thanks to the donor milk program, the hospital can now acquire pasteurized human milk from the IMMB by a physicians’ prescription order.
I visited Indianapolis to see the work of the IMMB, which is one of 10 nonprofit milk banks in the U.S. Like a blood bank, it thoroughly screens potential donors to ensure only healthy women with a plentiful supply of breast milk become donors. The skilled milk bank staff pasteurizes more than 70 bottles of donated breast milk twice daily in order to keep up with the demand from hospitals throughout the Midwest. The donated milk is pasteurized to deactivate any viruses or bacteria, and any milk that doesn’t pass microbiological testing is discarded.
Over the past 12 months, 78 donors from more than eight states have provided donor milk to The Women’s Hospital. All donations are voluntary and unpaid.
Katherine Carroll, Ph.D., is a medical sociologist and visiting research scholar with the Indiana University School of Medicine (2011-2012). Her project examines how donor milk is utilized in the neonatal intensive care units in America and Australia. Contact her at Katherine.Carroll@uts.edu.au.
For more information about the milk donor program in Evansville or how to donate, please contact “Great Beginnings” at The Women’s Hospital at 812-842-4525 or visit the IMMB at www.immilkbank.org.