Researchers have found more hospitals are offering preemies donor breastmilk and seeing positive health benefits.
Credit: Monthira Yodtiwong/Shutterstock

We've all heard how important breastfeeding can be to a baby's health, but some women who wish to nurse struggle to do so. When women give birth preterm, for example, breastfeeding can sometimes be a big challenge. Enter donor breastmilk, thought to be the next-best option. It has never been clear, however, whether using donor milk in the NICU actually benefits preemies. And, in fact, some have said it might actually impede a mom's success with breastfeeding.

Now, however, researchers have found positive changes in the hospitals that have started using donor milk over the last few years. Plus, the number of California hospitals offering donor breastmilk rose between 2007 and 2013. That's great news for parents of preemies!

In 2007, only 27 of 126 California NICUs were using donor milk. By 2013, 55 of 133 NICUs were using it. During that time, the NICUs that made the change showed an increase in the number of moms who'd begun breastfeeding by the time their babies were discharged. At those hospitals in 2007, about 53 percent of mothers had started breastfeeding by the time their babies were discharged; in 2013, that figure was almost 62 percent.

Over those same years, preemies' rates of developing necrotizing enterocolitis (a potentially dangerous gut infection) fell from 6.6 percent to just a little over 4 percent.

According to senior researcher Dr. Henry Lee, of Stanford University's division of neonatal and developmental medicine, however, these findings do not prove cause and effect, "But it's good to see correlations going in this direction," he told Health Day.

Dr. Lydia Furman, a pediatrician at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital who wrote an editorial published with the study, adds that there is "very strong" evidence that breastmilk helps ward off enterocolitis, so it makes sense for hospitals to encourage moms of preemies to breastfeed. She also said that hospitals' use of donor breastmilk is a "marker" of broader progress.

"It takes a coordinated program to make donor milk available," Furman said. "And that kind of coordination probably happens in NICUs where the value of mothers' milk is greatly appreciated."

Still, she adds that we need a range of strategies to help all women breastfeed, whether their baby is born preterm or full-term—things like educating families on the value of breastmilk, allowing moms and newborns to have lots of skin-to-skin contact, and helping women learn how to use a breast pump, for example.

For babies born preterm, anything doctors and moms can do that can help them grow strong and healthy is a must. And what a great gift for mothers to help out other moms by donating their breastmilk to preemies! If you are interested in donating to a breastmilk bank, click here to learn more.

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and a mom. Check out her website for more, and follow her on Twitter at @holleewoodworld.