Human Milk: The Best Medicine for Vulnerable Babies

By Heidi E. Karpen, MD

It fosters brain development. It passes on antibodies. It lowers the risk of infection. Human milk has long been known to offer many benefits to babies, especially to those born prematurely. 

Now, my colleagues and I are working on a large, multi-hospital study that aims to shed new light on how human milk benefits one group of infants in particular – newborns with congenital gastrointestinal disorders. 

The babies in this study receive exclusive human milk diets. The milk is from their own mother or pasteurized donor human milk. All babies in the study also receive a human-milk based fortifier to provide the additional calories and protein they need. The research team is comparing outcomes of these babies to those who received infant formula as part of their diet. The expectation? Infants receiving exclusively human milk will require IV nutrition for a shorter period of time. We are also comparing growth between the two groups of infants.

Positive results would reinforce a growing body of research on the topic of human milk. In prior research, babies with congenital gastrointestinal disorders spent about 20 fewer days in the hospital than infants who were fed primarily formula did. They also had few days on intravenous nutrition, fewer feeding problems, fewer infections and less liver damage. 

Congenital gastrointestinal disorders can occur when part of the intestine doesn’t form correctly or when the intestines are outside the body through a hole in the abdomen. Newborns with these birth defects experience delay in beginning to feed because of surgeries. Feeding intolerance and frequent feeding interruptions can also force them to rely on IV nutrition for long periods of time. These delays and problems in feeding their baby can lead new moms to decide not to breastfeed or pump milk.

A parent’s decision to feed her baby human milk or formula is a personal one. It can also be a sensitive subject for new moms who may face unexpected challenges with milk supply, who are separated from their babies, lack support or who are just beginning to comprehend what having a congenital gastrointestinal disorder will mean for their baby.

But data is proving that human milk might be the most effective medicine for babies with a congenital gut disorder. My goal is to help foster that education and offer support to new parents who decide that pumping and storing human milk until their baby is ready is right for them. 

Human milk yields benefits to all babies, but especially those with a congenital gastrointestinal disorder. 

Heidi E. Karpen, MD, is a neonatologist at Emory University School of Medicine and a member of the National Coalition for Infant Health.


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