Initiative Aims to Send Low Birthweight Babies Home on Human Milk

Dr. Allison Black is a neonatologist at Children’s of Alabama.

Children’s of Alabama neonatologist Allison Black, M.D., is spearheading a project with the Children’s Hospital Neonatal Consortium to improve the percentage of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) receiving human milk at 120 days of life or at discharge. More than 30 of the best level IV NICUs throughout the country are participating in the Project HOME (Home On Milk Every time) quality improvement project and sharing best practices to increase their success rates.

Breast milk has a host of benefits for babies, but for very low birthweight (VLBW) babies in the NICU, it can be lifesaving. The unique composition of human milk can reduce morbidity and mortality while conveying long-term cognitive and behavioral benefits.[1] Human milk that comes from an infant’s own mother is ideal because it includes antibodies to fight infection and a composition specific for each baby. But even donated breast milk can be beneficial. Despite these benefits, only about half of VLBW infants throughout the U.S. are discharged home on human milk. That rate is even lower among babies born in the South.[2]

The Project HOME initiative is built on research showing that a multidisciplinary approach is the most successful way to increase rates of human-milk feeding. “It’s not just one team member who makes a difference,” Black said. “Every caretaker who encounters patients and their families should provide the same messaging and education about the importance of human-milk feeding. We need to ensure that every staff member has the resources and knowledge to give this support to our families.” To that end, Black is assembling a team of NICU providers including bedside nurses, lactation consultants, speech and occupational therapists, nursing educators and even a mother of a NICU baby to identify and address barriers to providing the support needed for human-milk feeding.

The message is that human milk is a medicine that only you can provide for your baby.

One major barrier to getting mothers’ milk to babies at Children’s of Alabama is that the babies are born at hospitals throughout the state, some more than 100 miles away, then moved to Children’s via critical care transport teams. “We don’t see the mother until she’s discharged,” Black said, “and many times she’s too ill to speak by phone.” Yet studies find that expressing milk within the first six to 12 hours after delivery is associated with the highest success rates for initiating human-milk feedings.

Black says the transfer challenge requires them to think outside the box, such as including referring centers and the transport team in efforts to provide education about human-milk feeding before mothers arrive at Children’s.

“Another huge barrier is the physical and emotional distance a mother feels when her child has to be transferred to another facility,” Black said. This separation combined with the fact that many mothers are ill themselves can make it quite challenging for mothers to provide milk. Other barriers include access to electric pumps, support from someone who is knowledgeable about the benefits of human milk and a family and community support system. “These challenges continue as mothers have huge amounts of physical and emotional stress when their babies have prolonged hospitalizations, not to mention the different logistical challenges for mothers providing milk when they are back in the workplace and dealing with life outside of the NICU,” she said.

But Black sees numerous opportunities to overcome these obstacles, including educating mothers while they’re still in the hospital; outreach to high-referral centers to begin the education pre-delivery; giving brochures to families as early as possible; and forming a community support system.

While Black says the percentage of pre-term babies at Children’s who are still on human milk at 120 days or discharge is higher than the national average, she believes there is still room for improvement. She’d like to see the rate increased by at least 10 percent and is confident they’ll meet that goal. “All members of our team are passionate about working together to improve the care of our patients.”

[1] Vohr BR, Poindexter BB, Dusick AM, et al. Beneficial effects of breast milk in the neonatal intensive care unit on the developmental outcome of extremely low birth weight infants at 18 months of age. Pediatrics. 2006;118(1):e115-e123. doi:10.1542/peds.2005-2382

[2] Parker MG, Greenberg LT, Edwards EM, Ehret D, Belfort MB, Horbar JD. National Trends in the Provision of Human Milk at Hospital Discharge Among Very Low-Birth-Weight Infants. JAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(10):961–968. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.2645

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