Donor milk programs have become increasingly popular at neonatal intensive care units across the country, but a Connecticut-based study reveals that some babies may not be getting all the nutrition they need because there’s no standardized system for identifying what’s in that milk.
Milk banks around the country screen donors and pasteurize their samples before sending them to NICU's that have donor milk programs.
Because of those precautions, doctors say there are no safety concerns with the donor milk. Breast milk remains the recommended feeding option for newborns, as opposed to formula, especially with those who are sick and in intensive care.
However, a new study from the Connecticut Human Milk Research Center at the Connecticut Childrens Medical Center has found that milk used in some programs might not be as nutritionally sound as it could be, due to discrepancies with data collection.
"At the end of the day, it's about the nutritional needs of the baby," said Dr. Elizabeth Brownell, the director of the Connecticut Human Milk Research Center.
The study found that while some milk banks analyze the calories, fat, protein and carbohydrates contained in their milk samples, and include those details on the labels, other milk banks do not.
Milk banks also use varying criteria for defining pre-term milk, the study found.
“That’s a big deal for us, because you have to fortify the milk to optimize the nutritional needs of the infant so if you don't know what you're getting, it's tricky,” said Dr. Brownell.
Connecticut Children’s has a donor milk program in its NICU that is popular with families.
Jennifer Proffitt, of Southington, relied on the program during the first few days after the birth of her twins, Stella and Blake, until she was able to produce enough of her own breast milk to feed them.
"It was nice to have that to start with and also to have that option if I didn't produce enough," said Proffitt. "I really wanted them to have breast milk at least to start out with because of all the nutrients."
About half of hospital NICU's around the country do not utilize donor milk banks and the study shows the lack of standardized data is likely a contributing factor.
“If you don’t have the same definitions between different sites, you don’t know what you’re getting,” Brownell said.
"Neonatologists come up to me and they say, 'This is the exact reason why we don't have donor human milk programs in our NICU because we just don't know what we're getting into' so I think this raises questions about what to ask," said Brownell.
The study shows that increased FDA oversight of milk banks could solve the problem and lead to more NICU's adding donor milk programs.
That could allow more babies, like the Proffitt twins, to take advantage of such programs to get the nutrients they need, rather than using formula.
"They're both doing really, really well," said Proffitt. "We just go day to day and their progress has been great."