There are numerous benefits for babies that are breastfed, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Breastfed babies typically get sick less and have a lower rate of certain illness as they grow up. Human breast milk can be critical for vulnerable, premature infants, yet nearly 70% of mothers who deliver prematurely have difficulty initially producing enough milk. Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU) at hospitals are increasingly utilizing donor breast milk to help these at-risk babies. In 2011, more than 42% of NICUs in the United States were using donor milk.Two faculty members from the Mylan School of Pharmacy have been a part of a local effort to establish the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank, which would be the area’s first milk bank. Assistant Professors Dr. Jennifer Padden Elliott and Dr. Pamela Hucko Koerner are founding board members for the milk bank.
“Human breast milk can be life-saving for these babies,” said Elliott, who has one child of her own. “The milk bank will provide pasteurized human donor milk for the premature babies in area NICUs. There’s been a lot emerging evidence on the health benefits of using breast milk in these very premature infants, in particular it can help prevent and decrease the severity of necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious intestinal disease that can be life-threatening. ”
Elliott’s practice area focuses on pediatrics and she teaches pediatrics-related courses.
“We talk a lot about necrotizing enterocolitis because it is one of the most devastating complications of the NICU, and the decrease in deaths and severity seen with donor milk is pretty significant,” Elliott said. “In one in four cases of the disease, the baby dies. Another 50% require surgery to remove part of the intestine, and many are left with lifelong complications. The odds are really against these babies. I’ve seen many kids throughout my practice who struggle with the long-term complications of necrotizing enterocolitis, so when I heard about this opportunity, I said that I would do whatever was needed to help.”
According to the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank, 10.8% of births in Pennsylvania are premature, and nearly 12% of babies born in the state require admission to a NICU. Elliot said that the American Academy of Pediatrics adopted a standard of care last year recommending that all premature babies receive donor milk if their mothers are unable to produce their own.
“The problem is that there are only so many established Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) milk banks in the country—we are not able to currently meet the demand,” said Elliot. “Without a milk bank nearby, none of the Pittsburgh area hospitals are able to provide donor milk to premature babies. Bringing a milk bank here will help us meet that standard of care.”
Koerner is the mother of premature twins who had an extended stay in a NICU. “I know first-hand the struggle that many of these babies and mothers face,” said Koerner, who teaches courses on medication in pregnancy and lactation. “It will be such a tremendous service to provide babies in this area these opportunities.”
The Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank, which is accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, is actively searching for a building to house their efforts, with hopes of opening as early as this spring. Interested donors can contact the milk bank at email@example.com.