Got Milk? Donated breast milk provides healthy option for hospitalized babies

FARGO - Kristen Bratton was skeptical when nurses at Essentia Health suggested feeding her daughter donated breast milk. "The idea didn't sound very appealing," she said. But Ava was born more than two months early weighing just 2 pounds, 11 ounces.

Stephanie Nelson
Stephanie Nelson, registered nurse in Essentia's neonatal intensive care unit, displays donated human milk in 2-ounce bottles. (Photos by Jesse Trelstad / The Forum)

FARGO - Kristen Bratton was skeptical when nurses at Essentia Health suggested feeding her daughter donated breast milk.

"The idea didn't sound very appealing," she said.

But Ava was born more than two months early weighing just 2 pounds, 11 ounces. Bratton's body hadn't made very much milk, and she found out that formula can be hard on premature babies' stomachs.

So after nurses explained to her that donor milk is screened, tested, pasteurized, and comes from a milk bank, Bratton decided to feed it to her daughter.

"I'm so glad that we did it," she said. "Anything you can do from a health standpoint to help them out because they're so little."


Ava took to the milk with no problems, Bratton said. In fact, when Ava eventually had to be fed formula because she had bypassed the cut-off age for donor milk, she went through a few days of reflux issues.

"It's a great program that not a lot of people know about," Bratton said. "The benefits when they're that little and that young - anything you can do to help them is huge."

Essentia Health in Fargo started providing donor breast milk in April in the neonatal intensive care unit when mothers are not able to provide their own milk.

The milk comes from a donor bank in Colorado, and it's expensive, but patients are not charged for it, said Jan Medford, Essentia Health program manager for lactation and OB patient education.

Sanford Health also offers donor breast milk in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and has been doing so for a year and a half.

"Our goal is to provide superior nutrition for all of our infants, most especially our smallest, most vulnerable infants who are challenged with growth issues because of their size," said Kristy Fremstad, a nurse and the NICU lactation coordinator for Sanford Children's Hospital. "We know breast milk is like a medicine to all babies, but especially to a premature infant."

At Sanford, any infant with a medical need or younger than 32 weeks old is able to receive donor milk if the child's mother is unable to produce milk for her baby, Fremstad said.

Parents must consent to using donor milk, but Fremstad said all babies under 32 weeks in the unit are either receiving their mom's breast milk or donor milk.


"With education, and support regarding breast milk, parents have been very receptive to the use of donor milk," she said. "Most moms who are unable to provide breast milk are relieved we are able to provide breast milk for their infant."

Donor milk costs the hospital $3.50 per ounce plus shipping, but the infant's family is not charged, Fremstad said.

"The benefits of improved health and shortened hospital stay for an infant outweigh the costs," she said.

The benefits of human milk are numerous.

It has a lot of antibodies, which help strengthen the immune system. That's especially important for premature babies with underdeveloped immune systems, Medford said.

It fine-tunes the body's organs and helps protect against allergies, she said.

Human milk decreases babies' chance of developing necrotizing enterocolitis - the death of intestinal tissue, which most often affects premature or sick babies, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

It's a serious disease with a death rate of nearly 25 percent. It can also cause a hole in the intestines or peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal wall), both of which require surgery, according to the Library of Medicine.


"A lot of parents aren't real familiar with how valuable breast milk is," Medford said. "Breast milk is like a medicine for babies. It's very healthy and gentle for the premature digestive system."

Many NICUs around the country are routinely using donor milk for premature and sick babies, Fremstad said.

The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, a nonprofit association of donor human milk banks, sets the standards for milk banks in North America.

Donors are screened and the milk from three to five donors is mixed together and then pasteurized to eliminate bacteria and viruses while retaining the majority of the milk's beneficial components, the association states on its website.

Milk samples are taken during the pasteurization process and cultured to check for bacterial growth. Contaminated milk is discarded.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple recently proclaimed the first week in August as Breastfeeding Week in North Dakota.

The week coincides with World Breastfeeding Week, an annual event that draws attention to the health impacts of breastfeeding for both babies and mothers, a news release stated.


Stephanie Nelson
Essentia has offered donated human milk since April. (Photos by Jesse Trelstad / The Forum)

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