But it is even more critical for premature and sick babies. Infant formula is tolerated by about 92% of full-term newborns, but scientists have found that among babies weighing less than 5.5 lbs. at birth, those fed infant formula have up to a 6 times greater risk of developing a number of life-threatening conditions.
Tiny preemies are much more susceptible to infection and inflammation, which can lead to a host of serious health problems. The anti-infective and anti-inflammatory ingredients in human milk—which are missing from formula—can help prevent these health problems from developing.
In 2011 the Surgeon General estimated that among the 1.5% very-low-birth-weight babies born each year weighing less than 3.3 lbs. (3750 of whom are born annually in Illinois and Wisconsin) 12% will develop a devastating condition called necrotizing enterocolitis or NEC. When NEC develops, part of a baby’s intestines becomes inflamed and dies. Many babies who contract NEC become critically ill and need surgery to treat it. NEC is so prevalent and so expensive that NEC treatments alone account for 19% of all newborn health-care costs. This is why in 2011 the U.S. Surgeon General wrote:
“Human milk is vital to the survival of vulnerable [newborns] and plays an important role in addressing the substantial burden imposed by NEC on affected families….”
Study after study has found that preemies who receive even partial human milk feedings leave the hospital earlier and are much less likely to become seriously ill.
Although most mothers who give birth prematurely work hard to provide their own milk for their babies, premature birth and other medical complications can affect their ability to produce enough milk to meet their baby’s needs. If Illinois and Wisconsin mothers supplied their own milk for half of their babies’ feedings, we would still need 534,000 ounces of donor milk annually to bring these babies to a weight of about 4.5 lbs., which would greatly reduce their risk of serious complications.