Written by Roseanne Moore, Texas Children’s Hospital
What is supposed to be a joyous occasion – the birth of your baby – suddenly gives way to anxiety. While you know the next few months are critical to your premature infant’s survival, you never expect to hear this dreaded diagnosis, “Your baby has necrotizing enterocolitis.”
Texas Children’s Neonatologist Dr. Amy Hair is on a crusade to protect fragile and premature infants from necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a life-threatening neonatal condition that causes inflammation and death of intestinal tissue. In the worst cases of NEC, perforations develop in the intestine which may require portions of the intestine to be surgically removed.
Since the internal organs of premature infants are not fully developed, they are more susceptible to NEC, which claims the life of 500 premature infants each year in the United States. Jennifer Canvasser, a mother whose infant son died of NEC, knows this reality all too well. “My son Micah was critically ill when I first heard about NEC. In a matter of hours, Micah went from being a stable, healthy five-pound baby to being critically ill and intubated.”
Micah’s tragic outcome and one from Hair’s earlier years in residency – she treated a baby who died of NEC – motivated Hair to protect premature infants from this deadly disease by encouraging nursing mothers to donate the lifesaving gift of breast milk.
“Breast milk donors are lifesavers,” said Hair. “Unlike formula derived from cow protein – which is known to increase the risk of NEC – breast milk contains antibodies and anti-inflammatory factors that protect babies against NEC and a host of bacterial infections.”
Hair says the most effective way to reduce the rate of NEC is by feeding infants an exclusive human milk diet, which supports the guidelines issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics. This diet consists of mother’s own milk, pasteurized donor breast milk and protein fortifiers that add calories and nutrients to human milk to help critically-ill infants grow and thrive.
Since Texas Children’s implemented its exclusive human milk feeding protocol in 2009, NEC rates in our NICU have dropped significantly from the national average of 10-12 percent to two percent. Hair attributes this remarkable decline to the generous mothers who donate their breast milk to Texas Children’s Mother’s Milk Bank, many of whom are Texas Children’s employees.
“Every ounce of donor breast milk improves neonatal outcomes in our NICU,” said Hair. “If more mothers donate their excess supply to our Milk Bank, we can ensure our tiniest, most vulnerable patients receive a constant supply of nourishment and protection to stay healthy.”
As the associate medical director of neonatal nutrition at Texas Children’s, Hair has devoted her entire research to neonatal nutrition and delivers numerous presentations each year touting the lifesaving benefits of human milk at pediatric research conferences worldwide.
She also serves as a scientific advisor to the NEC Society, a non-profit organization that was established by Canvasser to honor her son, Micah, increase awareness about the lifesaving power of human milk, and encourage more mothers to donate their breast milk to protect babies from NEC.
Dr. Hair’s call-to-action is simple: Donate breast milk and help save a baby’s life.
Click Texas Children’s Mother’s Milk Bank to learn more about their donor breast milk program.