Last month the World Health Organization (WHO) – in conjunction with the Global Breastfeeding Collective – released a jarring assessment of the state of breastfeeding prevalence and support internationally. Although the scientific benefits of breast milk are well proven, the WHO report found only 40% of infants less than 6 months old are exclusively breastfed.
Furthermore, no country in the world meets the WHO recommendations for breastfeeding exclusivity or support.
The reasons behind the worldwide lack of breast milk exposure are complex and multifold – but lack of financial investment in breast milk promotion is a known contributor. The Global Breastfeeding Scorecard evaluated breastfeeding rates and practices in 194 countries and showed that lower or middle-income countries spent just $250 million on breastfeeding promotion. Comparatively – for one year in the USA – Proctor & Gamble, AT&T, and General Motors spent a combined $11.6 billion in advertising.
So what does this mean for NICU families?
For Keriton, a company dedicated to NICU infants and families, the current Scoreboard findings hit close to home. If a country lacks the ability to provide adequate support for full-term, healthy infants, what happens to the more vulnerable infants and families of neonatal intensive care?
For sick infants in the NICU, breast milk exposure is tantamount to medicine. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all eligible premature and high-risk infants receive breast milk. For these babies, breast milk reduces their risk of sepsis, retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), feeding intolerance, necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), and decreases their overall length of stay. Yet, for these same babies, NICU mothers face greater breastfeeding challenges than their healthy, full-term counterparts:
Separation from their infants – NICU mothers do not have the benefit of the constant hormonal signaling of their infant as well as the added stress of a NICU admission.
Dependance on breast pumps – NICU moms are reliant on breast pumping to provide breast milk. First, they must obtain a breast pump in the midst of a NICU admission and then follow a vigorous pumping schedule (8-12x/day) to maintain their milk supply.
Insufficient maternity leaves – Many NICU mothers are required to go back to work early to prevent forfeiture of family leave after their infant’s discharge; or worse, many mothers must go back to work because they are not provided with paid leave and need to continue to bring in an income. They do all of this while navigating a full-time job, pumping, and childcare for other siblings.
When you compare the risks for NICU mothers to the recommendations for breastfeeding success listed by the Global Breastfeeding Collective, it is easy to see the challenges NICU families face to meet recommended breastfeeding goals.
Why invest in breastfeeding support for NICUs?
According to a study contracted by the March of Dimes, premature birth costs employers $26 billion annually. The rate of premature birth increased 30% since the 1980s. To date, 1 in 10 infants will be admitted to a NICU. As discussed, breastfeeding is universally accepted as one of the largest interventions to improve NICU outcomes. Investing in ways to increase breast milk exposure would seem common-sense – and yet, NICU breastfeeding investment continues to lag nationwide.
Less than 50% of NICUs have designated lactation support by an IBCLC for NICU mothers.
Access to breast pumps, pumping equipment, and breast milk storage equipment is not universally available. If NICU moms seek help in the outpatient world, they often find breastfeeding support groups for mothers of healthy, full-term infants that do not meet their needs.
Further still, the absence of formal breastfeeding support oftentimes leaves the responsibility of educating and assisting lactating mothers to NICU nurses. Without NICU-specific lactation training or guidance, NICU nurses may have inadequate knowledge to troubleshoot and assist moms.
Unsurprisingly, research shows NICUs that require breastfeeding education for their nurses and provide designated lactation staff have higher rates of breastfeeding at discharge. More breast milk exposure in the NICU equates to lower hospital costs and lower healthcare costs to the country as a whole.
This is why we created Keriton Kare
To date, Keriton is the only feeding management company that helps NICUs by ensuring safe delivery of breast milk while also providing tools to increase breastfeeding support.
- Keriton’s patient engagement platform helps bridge the physical disconnect of NICU families by allowing mothers to receive secure photos & video of their infants.
- Mothers can access both hospital and lactation resources immediately from their smartphone and reach out via chat or video calling to designated lactation support staff in the hospital.
- Keriton also provides a way for NICU moms to easily set pumping reminders and log their breast milk at home. Logging milk is associated with increased pumping adherence and higher milk production totals.
- Meanwhile in the hospital, nurses and clinicians in the NICU can easily track pumping totals and provide support. Keriton’s built-in algorithm flags moms struggling with milk supply so even those units without designated lactation support can recognize issues earlier and intervene sooner.
Increasing breastfeeding investment in NICUs is not easy. Nationwide, it remains a multi-faceted problem.
But as more evidence mounts in support of expanding NICU access to lactation-specific education, equipment, and staff – Keriton remains committed to doing our part to increase breast milk exposure and improve infant outcomes.