I was recently visiting the new baby daughter of a friend when I remarked on how tiny all of the babies in the nursery seemed. A nurse overheard my comment and stated that if I really wanted to see a little baby, then I should see the NICU babies. At the time, they had babies in the Intensive Care Unit that were only a quarter of the size of the healthy babies in the regular nursery. This was absolutely stunning to me. How could something so tiny even survive? How could these itty bitty babies eat?

For many mothers who welcome their babies into the world ahead of schedule, ensuring that their tiny miracles get enough to eat can be an incredible challenge. For the youngest of the preemies, their digestive systems are not even developed enough to process milk. Older preemies may be ready to start digesting milk, but mothers of preemie babies often have trouble producing enough milk to keep their babies fed. Experts agree that breast milk is crucial to preemies having the best chances at survival, health, and strength. Formula does not always have enough of the fat and protein these babies need, necessitating supplementation.

Mothers of premature babies are encouraged to pump and hand express their milk as frequently as possible to build up their milk supply, so they can provide this milk to their little ones. Even doing this though, does not always produce enough milk for preemies. This is where breast milk donation comes in.

Some women are just blessed with incredibly productive lactation and are constantly battling their overflowing breasts. My sister dealt with this in the first few months after delivering my nephew. She produced so much milk that she would often have to hand express several ounces of milk before she could nurse, or the baby would choke on the flow. Women like this can make a tremendous difference in the lives of preemies and their mothers by donating their milk to NICUs.

Donated breast milk from several donors is often blended before being given to the babies, so that a baby’s body does not become reliant on the chemistry of one donor mother. This milk can supplement or even replace a mother’s milk if she is incapable of producing enough to support her baby’s growth.

Source: Gabrielli et al. Preterm milk oligosaccharides during the first month of lactation. Pediatrics. 2011 Dec;128(6):e1520-31. Epub 2011 Nov 28.