Breast milk is loaded with nutrients that help a baby grow, as well as antibodies to protect infants from diseases, says Sue Bedard, manager of the Breastfeeding Matters program at McKay-Dee Hospital.
Those attributes cannot be replicated in any type of milk substitute, she says, for sick and premature babies. "The formula is great food, but what sick babies need is medicine," Bedard says.
Giving donor milk to babies who cannot use their own mother's breast milk has been the standard of care in the neonatal intensive care unit at McKay-Dee Hospital for two years, the lactation consultant says.
A supply of donor milk from the Mother's Milk Bank in Denver is kept on hand. The milk is available as pre-term -- coming from a donor whose baby was born before 36 weeks gestation -- and full-term, from a donor whose baby was born after 36 weeks.
The composition of breast milk is ever-changing, Bedard explains. The milk a nursing infant drinks at six weeks is not the same as that he or she gets at six months.
"As the baby's nutritional needs change, the mother's milk automatically changes to meet the baby's nutritional needs," she says.
Breast milk is complex and we're just beginning to appreciate all its benefits, Bedard says, adding, "This is magical stuff in there."