PINEHURST – A young mother watches over her infant son in the hushed environment that is the Clarke Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital.
Although born prematurely, the little guy is healthy and thriving and will be going home soon.
There are several reasons why this baby is doing so well. One involves the unique nourishment and protection that he gets from his mother’s milk.
A number of modern medical studies, not to mention generations of anecdotal information, support the value of maternal milk to a baby’s health, growth and development. Yet many mothers still do not understand the benefits, especially for sick and/or premature infants.
An $8,000 grant from the Moore Regional Hospital Foundation has funded a Maternal Milk Quality Initiative to help assure that mothers with babies in the Moore Regional Hospital NICU get the education they need to understand those benefits. Eventually, supporters hope to apply the same model to the hospital’s well newborn nursery and then to the community at large.
Educating mothers about the value of breastfeeding is not new to Moore Regional, which has for many years provided the services of a certified lactation (breastfeeding) specialist for new and nursing mothers. But the current NICU effort is more proactive and includes staff education and policy change as well as maternal education and involvement.
“We have been passively encouraging breast milk use in our NICU for years,” says Medical Director Nicholas Lynn, M.D. “But with all of the expert proof about its medical benefit, we decided we needed to take a much more active approach. Once again, the Moore Regional Hospital Foundation has stepped up to provide money and support.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics calls maternal milk “the gold standard” for all babies, because it provides nutrients and other elements that protect the baby from infection and supports the development of newborn digestive systems. According to Corinne Cochran, a neonatal nurse practitioner in the Clarke NICU, the benefit is especially critical for babies in the NICU.
“If we can get them breast-fed early on, it will improve their ultimate outcome in life,” she says.
Thirteen percent of the babies born at Moore Regional Hospital are born prematurely, a figure in keeping with the number of pre-term infants throughout North Carolina. Despite the high-tech care now available to preemies, some do not survive and there is a high risk of neurodevelopmental delays, the eye disease called retinopathy and chronic lung disease among those who do.
There is also an increased risk for a gastrointestinal disease called necrotizing entercolitis (NEC) or tissue death of certain portions of the bowel. The condition affects about 10 percent of newborns weighing less than 1500 grams (3.3 pounds), and mother’s milk has been found to be at least partially protective.
In additional to its nutritional benefits, breast milk also contains antibodies and lymphocytes (white blood cells) from the mother that help the baby resist infection, effectively meaning “the mother gives the baby its first vaccinations,” Cochran says.
That’s why, whenever possible, it’s important for the baby to get milk produced by its own mother. Donor milk is available, but it lacks the unique protection provided by a mother to her child. It is also expensive.
According to Cochran, Moore Regional’s Maternal Milk Quality Initiative is multi-faceted and is designed to educate not only mothers but also members of the NICU staff about the benefits of breast milk. Staff training has already begun on how to talk to parents about those benefits as well as on breast milk science and physiology.
“Parents need to have the message from the entire staff,” says Cochran.
Moore Regional’s NICU moms also get a “Healthy Futures Begin with Breastfeeding” bag that includes a cooler bag, water bottle, and breastfeeding pads, creams and coupons; and breast pumps are available for rent through the hospital.
Insured mothers are encouraged to contact their insurance company for information on breast pump benefits while uninsured mothers get information from the NICU staff on how they can get pumps through the county WIC office.
By the end of the year, Cochran hopes that specific policies and procedures will be in place to support breastfeeding for the hospital’s pre-term babies. She anticipates that after the program’s first year, more NICU mothers will be discharged as breast-feeders and a second phase – with its emphasis on well newborns and the community – can begin.
“Hospitals are in the business of promoting health,” Cochran says, “and this is a huge community health issue.”
For more information on the Clarke Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital or the work of the FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital Auxiliary, please call (800) 213-3284.