Health & Fitness

Breast milk: the best gift for a healthy start

Laurie Gwyn
Laurie Gwyn Courtesy photo

Giving your baby human milk is one of the best ways to ensure a healthy start. It is a wonderful gift that provides bonding and immeasurable health benefits for your baby in the immediate newborn period and also long-term benefits realized well beyond.

Breast milk provides virtually all the nutrients your baby needs to be healthy, as well as substances that boost your baby’s immune system. This significantly decreases the chance that your baby will have certain infections, such as ear infections, colds and other respiratory infections, diarrheal and gastrointestinal illnesses. Breastfeeding also helps protect babies from some allergic disorders including atopic dermatitis (eczema), wheezing and asthma. Your baby’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome, obesity, diabetes and some cancers is reduced as well with breastfeeding.

Premature babies in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) have special health needs and face additional risks and illnesses that can be life threatening. Necrotizing enterocolitis is a serious condition of the intestines that is one of the most common life-threatening illnesses in the NICU. Giving your premature baby human milk significantly reduces the chance of necrotizing enterocolitis, and also greatly reduces the amount of severe infections in the blood stream, or sepsis. Premature babies who are fed human milk have lower rates of severe retinopathy of prematurity, a potentially blinding disorder of the retina of the eye. The beneficial effects of human milk in premature babies is also seen in improved neurodevelopmental outcomes, which affect long-term learning and behavior.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk exclusively for all babies for the first six months of life. After this, mothers should continue to give breast milk while introducing other foods until 1 year of age, and may continue past 1 year as long as mother and baby desire. For premature babies, a mother’s own breast milk should be the primary nutrition. However, moms of premature babies face many challenges and there are times they are unable to produce and/or supply breast milk for their baby. Because the health benefits of human milk for premature babies are so significant, the academy recommends giving pasteurized donor milk when a mother’s own milk is not available.

The Wesley Donor Milk Program has been established at Wesley Medical Center to help provide human milk for preterm babies who are at the highest risk. Mothers with extra breast milk may donate their milk through the Wesley Donor Milk Program. This milk is then formulated into nutritional products that benefit the most fragile premature infants. Every ounce of human milk donated guarantees the availability of human milk to benefit premature babies at highest risk in Wesley’s NICU. Wesley’s Donor Milk Program ensures that premature babies in the Kansas community are able to receive the best gift for a healthy start. If you are a mother with extra breast milk and are interested in donating your extra milk to help support premature babies in the Kansas community, please visit www.wesley.prolacta.com.

Laurie Gwyn is the medical director of Well Newborn Services at Wesley Medical Center and an assistant professor at the KU School of Medicine.

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