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New breast milk donation program aims to help premature babies

Lesley Jackson with twin daughters Ncole (left) and Nova
Lesley Jackson with twin daughters Nicole (left) and Nova.
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How to donate

BY SUSIE STRACHAN
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, January / February 2016

Winnipeg women are being encouraged to donate breast milk in an effort to ensure premature babies get the nourishment they need to help survive the first weeks of life.

A new drop site to receive donations has been established at the Birth Centre, located at 603 St. Mary's Road. The local donations are replacing breast milk imported from the United States.

Dr. Michael Narvey, Head of Neonatology for the Winnipeg Health Region, says the decision to establish a centre to collect donated breast milk is an important one.

As he explains, premature babies enter the world facing all sorts of health issues, but studies show those who receive breast milk have fewer long-term health needs.

For example, Narvey says premature babies run a higher risk of developing necrotizing entercolitis, a condition that damages an infant's intestines. But studies show breast milk can help prevent the condition.

"Breast milk is tolerated by infants much more than formula," he says. "It goes through their intestinal tract much more smoothly and it prevents the infant from developing necrotizing entercolitis."

Other conditions that can be prevented by feeding breast milk to premature infants include various infections, chronic lung disease, intraventricular hemorrhage and retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disease that can cause blindness in premature infants.

"Mortality is greatly lessened," says Narvey. "And the infants also have improved neurodevelopment."

Unfortunately, many mothers of premature babies are often not ready to produce milk. As a result, donated breast milk is used to provide the nourishment premature babies need.

"Ideally, we'd prefer moms to feed their own infants, but there are many reasons why a mother cannot. She might have recently gone through surgery, or be on medications that cannot be passed on to her infant through her milk. Other mothers, despite heroic efforts, are not able to produce enough to feed their own infants and may need some supplementation from donated milk."

Lesley Jackson's story illustrates the point. When her twin girls were born at 24 weeks gestation last July, they were so tiny that each could fit in the palm of her hand.

Jackson had been flown in to Women's Hospital at Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg from The Pas, just in time to give birth to babies Nicole and Nova. Unable to produce breast milk for her daughters, the twins were fed donated breast milk for the first months of their lives in the hospital neonatal intensive care unit. "That's what kept them going," says Jackson, who is grateful this was available for her girls. "A lot of people were holding their breath, hoping they would survive."

Nova, who weighed 490 grams (17.2 ounces) at birth, was discharged in mid-November, but her twin, Nicole, born weighing 460 grams (16.2 ounces), remained in the intermediate care unit at Women's. "I'm hopeful she can come home with me in January," says her mother. "Nicole is doing things at her own pace. She'll soon catch up with her sister."

As a registered dietitian, Julie Gislason learned long ago about the health benefits of breast milk. But that lesson was brought home in 2014 with the birth of her son, Brody, who was born at 27 weeks, 2 days gestation, and weighed 1,225 grams (2.7 pounds). He spent the first six weeks of his life in the neonatal intensive care unit at HSC.

The premature birth meant Gislason wasn't ready to provide her own breast milk to Brody. Instead, Brody was given donated breast milk until Gislason could provide her own. She says there is no question the breast milk helped make Brody the healthy 16-month-old-child he is today.

"I give a lot of credit to that breast milk in helping him thrive and grow," she says.

Approximately 200 newborns at HSC and St. Boniface Hospital require donated breast milk every year, says Narvey.

Each preterm infant weighing less than one kilogram (2.2 pounds) receives around 150 mL (5.2 ounces) of donated breast milk per day, with the amount scaled up for larger infants.

The Winnipeg drop site for breast milk donations is a partnership between the Winnipeg Health Region, the Women's Health Clinic and the Calgary-based NorthernStar Mother's Milk Bank. The drop site collects and freezes the milk before forwarding it on to the NorthernStar Mother's Milk Bank for processing. The freezer for the milk drop was purchased by the Region with funds provided by the Winnipeg-based Siobhan Richardson Foundation.

Once processed, the pasteurized milk is then shipped for use in neonatal intensive care units across Canada, including HSC and St. Boniface Hospital, says Narvey.

On the first day the program was announced, 40 mothers applied to be donors, says Narvey, adding that donations are used by preterm infants in the hospital only.

HSC and St. Boniface have been purchasing donor breast milk from a milk bank in Ohio. However, they have found that with the low currency exchange rate, the cost of the milk shot up to around $17 Canadian per ounce. Also, each shipment is soon to be hit with a $250 tariff at the border.

"We compared that to the cost of working with NorthernStar, which charges $4.25 per ounce. That includes the cost of processing, pasteurization, shipping," says Narvey. "And the best part is that we are guaranteed to receive the same amount of breast milk back that was donated by mothers in Manitoba."

The Region will continue to use Ohio as a backup, but Narvey hopes that with continued interest from Manitoba mothers, the Calgary milk bank will be able to supply all the breast milk needed for use in the two hospitals that have neonatal intensive care and intermediate care units.

Susie Strachan is a communications specialist with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: November / December 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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