Babies born early or with health conditions often require advanced care in the NICU. Yet it's still best if these babies can receive human milk while getting this specialized care.
A recent study found that only a third of hospitals are providing human milk to at least 90 percent of these NICU babies.
This number has increased from 2007, when only one fifth of hospitals were providing human milk to most infants.
One way to help increase this number is to support mothers in expressing breast milk for their babies in the NICU.
This study, led by Cria G. Perrine, PhD, of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at how common it was to use human milk in neonatal intensive care units.
The researchers compared data from three different national surveys by the CDC called the Maternity Practices in Infant Nutrition and Care. They analyzed two questions in the 2007, 2009 and 2011 surveys.
The researchers found that the number of hospitals that were providing human milk, whether from a baby's mother or donated, to preemies in the NICU increased from 2007 to 2011.
Only 21 percent of hospitals in 2007 reported routinely providing human milk to at least 90 percent of the babies receiving care in NICU.
That number increased to 27 percent in 2009 and then to 31 percent in 2011.
More hospitals were also receiving donor milk in 2011 than in 2007. In 2007, 11.5 percent of maternity hospitals were using milk donated from a milk bank.
In 2009, 14 percent were using banked donor milk, and in 2011, 22 percent of hospitals were using donated milk.
Unsurprisingly, the rates of donor milk use were highest in the states that had a milk bank in that state or in a neighboring state.
Also, states in the Northeast and Northwest had more hospitals that reported providing milk to at least 90 percent of the babies in the NICU.
For example, in the following states, at least 45 percent of maternity hospitals reported providing milk to at least 90 percent of the babies receiving NICU care: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Montana, North Dakota, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
In the following states, 30 to 44.9 percent of the hospitals met that threshold: California, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Virginia, Vermont, Maine and Connecticut.
The researchers said the use of milk is increasing, but is still too low.
"Only approximately one-third of advanced care units are routinely providing human milk to most (at least 90 percent of) infants, suggesting many fragile infants are not receiving optimal protection from infections and other morbidities," the researchers wrote.
"Hospitals with advanced care neonatal units can further support the care of medically fragile infants by adopting policies and practices to support mothers in being able to provide their breast milk to their infants," the authors added.
They suggested that mothers receive help in expressing milk to provide to their babies receiving advanced care.
The study was published May 13 in the journal Pediatrics. The research did not receive external funding. The authors declared no conflicts of interest.