MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dr. Sharon Unger BSc, MD, FRCP
Staff Neonatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital
Associate Staff Neonatologist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids)
Associate Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Toronto.
Medical Director of the Rogers Hixon Ontario Human Milk Bank and
Dr. Deborah L. O’Connor PhD, RD
Senior Associate Scientist in Physiology & Experimental Medicine
SickKids and Professor
Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Response: Babies who are born very early (before 32 weeks’ gestation) and/or at very low weights (less than 1,500 grams) are among the most fragile of all paediatric patients, typically facing serious medical issues and requiring care in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). In addition to underdeveloped organs and risk of neurodevelopmental issues, preterm and very low birth weight babies are at risk of a severe bowel emergency called necrotizing enterocolitis, which involves the damage and potential destruction of the intestinal tissue. This disease affects approximately six per cent of very low birth weight infants each year, making it one of the most common causes of death and long-term complications in this population.
As a neonatologist and a PhD-trained dietitian, we have spent our careers working to improve outcomes for babies and supporting breastfeeding. While there is already strong evidence to suggest that breastfeeding is associated with a variety of benefits including reduced risk of childhood infections and may play a role in the prevention of overweight and diabetes, in healthy, full-term infants, we launched a research program a decade ago to figure out how to ensure the same advantage could be provided to vulnerable hospitalized infants, specifically very low birth weight infants.
Breastfeeding initiation rates in Canada are now at all-time high for healthy newborns, but for many reasons related to preterm birth, up to two thirds of mothers of very low birth weight infants are unable to provide a sufficient volume of breast milk to their infant. A variety of factors may limit breast milk production in these cases, including immaturity of the breast cells that make milk, maternal illness, breast pump dependency, and stress. In addition to the health benefits attributed to mother’s milk for full-term, healthy infants, previous studies have shown that use of mother’s milk in very low birth weight infants is associated with a reduction in necrotizing enterocolitis. It is also associated with a reduction in severe infection, improved feeding tolerance and more rapid hospital discharge.
Ten years ago, along with our inter-professional colleagues at 21 NICUs in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas, we began to examine whether using donor breast milk as a supplement to mother’s milk would improve health outcomes of very low birth weight infants when mother’s milk was not available.