Thursday, May 17, 2012


Human Milk Banks Save Premature Babies’ Lives

NOTE: This is a guest blog post from James Carruthers, Director of Development, BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre Foundation.

"When Alison went into labor two months early, she worried about her tiny baby girl’s very survival. Adding to her worries, Alison was unable to breastfeed her daughter in the first few days of her life.

Preemies like Alison’s daughter must be fed real breast milk, donated by new moms with enough to share. Human breast milk contains the life-saving nutrition premature babies desperately need to grow strong and get better.

The Provincial Milk Bank Program at BC Women’s Hospital was a lifeline for Alison and her daughter: “My daughter was 31 weeks gestation when she was born and received donor milk in the first few days in the Newborn ICU before my milk came in. I was grateful to the women who donated and made it possible for her to get breast milk in the first few days of her life when she was so tiny and vulnerable.”

Formula can be a risky option for premature babies. Many preemies cannot digest formula and suffer from terrible stomach aches as a result. Preemies have a much higher chance of developing a serious bowel disease called necrotising enterocolitis or NEC. A premature baby who suffers from NEC may have health problems that last a lifetime or they may not survive the disease.

Like Alison’s daughter, 70% of preemies are unable to get milk from their own moms. These preemies are at risk of illness if they don’t get donor breast milk quickly.

BC Women’s Milk Bank program provides pasteurized donor human milk to premature and sick babies whose own mothers can’t provide any or enough breast milk. Most of our donor milk feeds those who need it most: The “sickest of the sick” babies in British Columbia who come to the Newborn ICU at BC Women’s for specialized care and treatment. We also ship milk to sick babies in need throughout British Columbia, and even as far away as Ontario.

Donor milk banks are recommended by the World Health Organization, the Canadian Pediatric Society and U.S. Surgeon General due to the significant health benefits for sick babies. Research shows babies in NICUs receiving donor milk have shorter stays in the hospital and fewer hospital readmissions in the first year of life. They also have less risk of developing major chronic diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, asthma and childhood obesity.

Breast milk offers the best start to life for any baby, but Milk Banking has distinct advantages over milk sharing: “Sharing milk with your sister might be OK if you have a healthy, full term baby,” says Frances Jones of BC Women’s Milk Bank, “But it can be risky for premature babies who are very vulnerable to infection because of their compromised immune systems. And if the shared milk is from a stranger, it is impossible to know if the milk is safe for a tiny, high risk infant.”

Milk banks offer protection for families. In Canada, the United States and Mexico, the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) sets guidelines and standards for milk banks. At BC Women’s Milk Bank, donors are screened methodically to ensure they are healthy enough to donate their breast milk. The donated milk is then pasteurized — similarly
to milk in the grocery store — so it is safe for sick and premature babies to consume.

Milk Banks are important for another reason: the hope they offer to families with a premature or critically-ill baby in the NICU. “Milk banks make sure that the very sickest babies get the milk they need, when they need it,” says Jones, “When you give your breast milk to a milk bank, you are saving a newborn life.”

If you would like to help preemies get the breast milk they need, please contact an HMBANA Milk Bank near you. You can also make a difference by making a gift to BC Women’s Foundation in support of the Provincial Milk Bank.

BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre is the only facility in British Columbia and the only women’s hospital in Canada dedicated solely to caring for the comprehensive health needs of women, newborn babies and families. BC Women’s Hospital Foundation raises funds to support BC Women’s as the leader in newborn and women’s health."