Patient Care

Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Begins Offering Donor Breast Milk to Premature Infants

Nov. 8, 2017

Babies with very low birthweights — those weighing less than 3.3 pounds — now have access to donor breastmilk and donor milk products when a mother’s own milk is not available. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital has launched a donor milk program to help provide for the nutritional needs of premature infants. 

“There is overwhelming evidence that breastmilk provides the best nutrition for premature infants and has long-term, potentially lifesaving benefits,” said Jeffrey Meyers, M.D., the medical director of the NICU. “A mother’s own milk is always best, but mothers are not always able to provide breastmilk or produce enough. Donor milk is the next best thing and is nearly as protective as mother’s milk."

Historically, NICUs have supplemented feedings for preterm infants with formula. National recommendations now call for extremely premature babies to be fed donor milk when mother’s own milk is not available and the use of donor milk in NICUs is a growing trend across the country.

Technicians in the lab

Studies indicate that breastmilk provides protection against a wide variety of infections and complications, including a life-threatening intestinal disease, necrotizing enterocolitis, which predominantly affects premature infants. Babies who are fed breastmilk are much less likely than those who are fed formula to develop this disease.

“This initiative will impact about 200 babies per year — our smallest babies who are at the highest risk of developing complications,” said Rachel Steffen, a nurse in the NICU who was the team leader for the project. “This is a major advancement that brings us in line with the ‘gold standard’ of nutrition for premature infants and will allow us to improve the outcomes of these babies.”

Most premature infants require an added fortifier in breastmilk to ensure they are receiving enough protein, fat, vitamins, and nutrients. With the launch of this new program, the NICU’s smallest patients will also be able to receive a fortifier made from donor milk — instead of formula — which has been shown to decrease the risk of feeding complications and infections.

Fortified milk products are now being provided to babies like Jacob and Christopher Pizzo, twins who were born nearly 16 weeks early on Oct. 31, both weighing about 1 ½ pounds.

“I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to breastfeed when they were born because they arrived three months early. Hearing about this new program was a huge relief, because I knew that no matter what, our babies would get what they needed,” said Angelica Pizzo, one of the twin’s parents. “Although I am now able to provide them with breastmilk, they are receiving the extra fortifiers from donor milk to help them fight off illness and grow. To be able to have this program as an option is truly a blessing.” 

Technicians began preparing donor milk products in a nutrition lab in the NICU for the first time on Monday after months of intensive planning. Steffen led an interdisciplinary team of providers, nurses, dietitians, a lactation consultant, and pharmacists to design and implement the program. The initiative required approval from New York State Department of Health as well as a new software program that allows donor milk to be tracked throughout the preparation process. 

The pasteurized donor milk products are obtained from a licensed tissue bank. Donors are screened for viruses and must receive approval from a doctor to donate. All breastmilk is tested for illegal drugs and nicotine, and parents must consent to their babies receiving donor breastmilk.