Sharing your breast milk may sound weird or unsavory to some, but it’s a growing practice that can carry benefits for a premature baby. It is a well-known fact that mother milk is essential for a baby during the initial days. Human milk helps to support the immature immune system of a baby. Besides water, fat and lactose, the three largest components of breast milk, it contains many things that help to fight disease, such as antibodies. It also contains human milk oligosaccharides, which can’t be digested by the baby but are the preferred food for many healthy bacteria living in the gut. Another component of breast milk is lactoferrin, which tightly binds iron, making it unavailable to dangerous bacteria that need it in order to survive. In short, Breast milk creates an optimal gut environment, especially in premature infants.
Advances in caring for premature babies and very-low-birth weight infants (defined as weighing less than 1,500 grams at birth) mean more of them survive longer. But, this vulnerable group still has a high risk of necrotising enterocolitis (NEC). It affects around 1 to 3 per cent of infants in the NICU and 7 per cent of very-low-birth weight infants, and up to one-third of those infected will die. Numerous research studies have shown, however, that an all-breast-milk diet for premature infants significantly reduces the risk.
Now-a-days, a new trend, milk banking — donating screened expressed milk for high-risk babies, for whom breast milk’s immunity-boosting components can be lifesaving — has been around for more than 30 years in India and is on the rise. Milk Banking gets a thumbs-up from experts because donor moms adhere to strict lifestyle guidelines (no smoking or drinking). The women also go through a several screening process to ensure that no diseases, such as HIV or hepatitis, are passed to the infant. After the screening, the milk is analyzed for the essential nutrient content in the milk which a premature baby requires.
Milk donation wisely means not only knowing the donor mother’s health status but also closely matching donor milk to your baby’s age. The composition of breast milk also changes as the baby gets older, becoming less nutrient-dense over time. But although donor milk isn’t identical to the baby’s own mother’s milk, it still has many of the same benefits, passing along valuable antibodies that protect the baby from disease and making the baby healthy.