The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that newborn babies breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life, but only about 13 percent of infants in the United States receive nothing but human milk for that amount of time.
With the hope of improving that rate, Diane Spatz, the Helen M. Shearer Term Associate Professor of Nutrition in the Penn School of Nursing, has for the past two years labored to establish a new national agenda for breastfeeding.
As chair of the American Academy of Nursing’s (AAN) Expert Panel on Breastfeeding and the AAN’s representative to the United States Breastfeeding Committee, she was invited to join U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin in releasing her “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding,” a 20-point plan that highlights the concrete need for more resources for breastfeeding moms.
Spatz, who holds a joint appointment in Penn Nursing and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), has spent her entire career working with women experiencing complex pregnancies and caring for critically ill babies. At Penn, she teaches an undergraduate seminar course on breastfeeding and human lactation.
At CHOP, Spatz consults with mothers of infants with complex surgical anomalies, helping them successfully provide milk for their newborns. Mothers with special-needs babies must often initiate breastfeeding with a hospital-grade electric pump to express colostrum, also known as “first milk.”
“Colostrum isn’t food for a baby. It’s more like medicine. It’s present in very small amounts, but it is super concentrated,” Spatz explains. “Antioxidants, cytokines and immunoglobulins in colostrum give babies a frontline defense against infections even before they can breastfeed. It’s like an infant’s first vaccination.”
Spatz instructs mothers on how to give this critical oral care to their newborns who are unable to breastfeed due to serious illness, and explains the importance of providing colostrum to them.
The new mothers dip sterile cotton swabs into small colostrum collection containers—the size of prescription pill bottles—and then gently swab the milk inside their babies’ tiny mouths, painting their cheeks and gums.
When a new mom is discharged from the hospital and has to leave her ailing infant behind, small amounts of breast milk are saved (and larger amounts are frozen) so nurses can continue the oral care between maternal visits.
“One of the most rewarding things about my job is to see how empowered women feel; doing something only they can do that makes a total difference in their child’s care,” Spatz says.
Originally published on March 3, 2011