Nutrition is one of the most critical factors in healthy child development, but this is especially true for babies born prematurely. For many preemie parents, the early arrival of their baby quickly turns what was expected to be a blissful time into a period fraught with a host of unexpected decisions – including those involving their fragile baby’s nutrition.
Premature babies born weighing less than 1500g will follow a special feeding course, since they are too tiny to eat on their own and require additional nutrition to help them grow. Human milk is associated with substantial health benefits for all infants, but it is especially important for premature infants, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC) is the most common and serious intestinal inflammatory disease among premature babies, which occurs when tissue in the small or large intestines is injured or begins to die off. However, exclusive human-milk nutrition helps decrease the incidence and severity of NEC.
An exclusive human-milk diet (EHMD) – when 100 percent of the protein, fat and carbohydrates of the infant’s intake are derived solely from human milk – is especially beneficial for premature infants who require specialized nutrition and care in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Several studies reported that extremely premature infants, specifically those born weighing 500-1250g, who received an EHMD as opposed to preterm formula or fortifier made from cow’s milk, have a reduced risk of developing medical NEC or surgical NEC, according to studies published in “Adult Child and Adolescent Nutrition” and the “Journal of Pediatrics.”
“We know that human milk has immune factors, antibodies and high levels of important fats and vitamins, so it makes sense that an EHMD would be a natural source to help them reduce infection and NEC,” said Dr. Amy Hair, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the neonatal nutrition program at Texas Children’s Hospital.
Breast milk is the best nutrition for all babies, but in the case of extremely premature babies, a mother’s own breast milk does not provide all the nutrients these babies need. Because very low-birth weight preemies require additional energy and protein, doctors will add a human milk fortifier (HMF) to breast milk for the premature infant’s feeding. Parents who have an infant in the NICU should speak with their baby’s neonatologist about the nutritional options for their preemie to ensure they are receiving an exclusive human-milk diet that includes a human milk-based, human milk fortifier for optimal outcomes for their infant. No other intervention has been shown to be nearly as effective against the incidence of NEC, based on research published in the “Journal of Pediatrics.”