Baby Ava has been in neonatal intensive care since she was born three months ago. A ventilation tube helps her breathe. She's not strong enough to nurse. So Glenda Burton pumps breastmilk every few hours for her baby.
"This orange one is her feeding tube. It delivers her breastmilk to her," Burton explained, pointing to a thin tube that threads through Ava's nose into the baby's stomach.
At just a teaspoon an hour, mother's milk provides Ava more than formula could ever deliver.
"The first milk is called colostrum, the very first milk that the mother makes. And that is actually more than fifty percent comprised of antibody," explained Seattle Children's Neonatologist Dr. Isabella Knox.
Dr. Knox said researchers are now learning that breast milk programs a baby's immune system for life. In the early fragile weeks, it helps preemies survive.
"In the vulnerable babies like the preemies it provides really very critical immunity to the things that only preemies are susceptible to," said Dr. Knox.
Breast milk protects them from a devastating intestinal infection called necrotizing enterocolitis that attacks premature infants almost exclusively.
"We see a lot of babies with that at Seattle Children's because they often need surgery so they're transferred here from other NICUs" said Dr. Knox.
Now the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that all premature infants in the NICU Get mother's or donor breast milk. Dr. Knox estimated that fewer than half the hospitals in our state offer it today.
"It means a lot of logistical things have to be figured out, because now we have to buy milk from a certified milk bank," she said.
The first donor milk depot in our region opened at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett. To make sure the supply is safe, donors are screened in a process similar to blood donation. And all donor milk is pasteurized.
Still, the new recommendations make it clear, the greatest health benefits come from an infant's own mother's milk. Glenda Burton said supplying it is a no brainer.
"She's got a few more hurdles, you know, you're going to give her what's best for her," she said.
Experts also say breastmilk protects babies against other things, including ear infections, diarrhea, asthma, and even sudden infant death syndrome.