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Donor milk and NEC – Greece

For anyone working on a neonatal unit, a diagnosis of necrotising enterocolitis brings great concerns for the infant. It almost always affects a preterm baby, especially those born with growth restriction in other words very small even for their gestational age. NEC, as it is commonly referred to, has a high mortality rate and it often leaves those who survive with long term health problems. 

It has long been known that feeding premature infants with an exclusive human milk diet is the best protection against this dreaded disease and systematic reviews of the research evidence continue to confirm that donor human milk will also help to prevent it occurring. Indeed, their role in protecting babies from NEC is one of the main reasons why milk banks started to grow in number once the evidence that its incidence was lower in babies fed donor milk rather than cow’s milk formula started to emerge in the early 1990s.

The stress, anxiety, exhaustion and the possible maternal health problems associated with a preterm delivery all combine to present great challenges to a new mother trying to develop and maintain a good breastmilk supply. Without plentiful milk, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain her supply which can stop altogether. Sadly, expert help and support is sometimes not enough to overcome the challenges and an insufficient supply of breastmilk affects many mothers of premature babies.

 One such baby, born at 28 week’s gestation in early 2019, and the baby’s mother are an example of this. The mother didn’t manage to provide enough of her own milk. She wrote ‘After giving birth to such a premature infant I had feelings of guilt, anxiety and stress. I made great efforts to provide the required milk, pumping every 3 hours, following a special diet and using herbs and medicines – without success*. This greatly increased my emotional pain.’ 

(Expert advice should be sought before trying any dietary, herbal and medicinal methods of increasing milk supply. Many have no evidence of efficacy and some may be harmful.)

The family heard about the ‘Elena Venizelou’ milk bank in Athens by chance after their baby had undergone surgery following the development of NEC. The donor milk was started when the baby was 8 weeks old and continued for 150 days. In total 15 litres were supplied to help this baby. It also helped the mother who is very clear that not only did it help the baby’s gut to recover from the surgery but that her mental state improved as her stress levels diminished. More than that, the mother believes it saved her baby’s life and also importantly removed her feelings of guilt. She wrote this message: ‘I am  grateful to the mother-donors, whom I don’t know in person but were crucial for my baby.’ She added ‘We hope that the celebration of World Day of Human Milk Donation will raise awareness for donor human milk all over the world and especially in our country.’

All at EMBA hope so too and with new milk banks recently established in the North of Greece there is already a growth in the availability of donor milk in this part of Europe.

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