Racial Disparity Mars Infants’ Access to Donor Milk

All mothers want to give their babies a stronger immune system, reduce their risk of SIDS and lower their rate of respiratory infections. But a recent study found black babies may be less able to realize these and other benefits of an exclusive human milk diet.

When researchers analyzed the use of donor milk in neonatal intensive care units by comparing the demographic make-up of hospitals’ zip codes, they found that fewer infants in areas with more black residents routinely received donor milk. These results underscore the need for ongoing education about the benefits of breast milk– and for policies that make donor milk more widely available.

Almost all hospitals have adopted nursing-friendly policies in support of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that infants receive an exclusive human milk diet for their first six months of life. But some new moms struggle to produce enough milk for their baby. This includes mothers of premature infants, for whom an exclusive human milk diet is especially advantageous.  It can decrease preemies’ risk of sepsis and necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening intestinal condition, as this video from the National Coalition for Infant Health explains.

So when mother’s milk is not an option, banked donor breast milk is the ideal alternative.

In some areas, there is an excess of donor milk supply—and ample resources to pay for it. In other communities, however, access to banked milk is limited.  Data suggest cost is a restraining factor. While banks receive the milk for free, they charge hospitals a fee to defray their costs of screening, pasteurizing and packaging it. Health plans and Medicaid systems may not cover human milk, even if a doctor recommends it. Some hospitals foot the bill themselves, but poor and rural hospitals often cannot afford to.

This means their fragile neonates may go without human milk and its lifesaving benefits.

The access disparity facing black infants is not just unfair; it is potentially unhealthy.  But it will continue until policymakers address coverage gaps to allow all infants, regardless of race or zip code, to benefit from human milk.


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