Babies will benefit from the TRICARE coverage of donor milk.

It’s no wonder that TRICARE (the healthcare insurance of the US armed forces) and some other leading insurance providers are now covering the cost of donor human milk for infants in several situations. There are a variety of conditions that qualify for this benefit. Likely as not, however, the biggest reason is a premature baby being born at very low birth weight (VLBW, i.e., < 1500 grams).

Nice, huh?

Actually, it’s much more than “nice.” For many babies, it’s necessary; the choice between donor human milk and artificial infant formula can be the difference between life and death.

Does that sound extreme? It’s not. Read on for the top 3 reasons why your fragile infant needs donor human milk.

1. Reduced risk of necrotizing entercolitis (NEC)

NEC is a serious bacterial infection of the intestinal wall, which is a leading cause for prematurity-related deaths. The risk is highest for premature infants fed artificial formula. Research has shown that human milk, particularly special components known as oligosaccharides, prevent gut dysfunction and NEC in these vulnerable babies.

In my opinion, and that of many experts, NEC is so devastating and costly that this alone is enough reason to advocate for donor human milk instead of formula! You can bet that TRICARE coverage of donor milk wouldn’t be offered if it weren’t highly beneficial for all.

Understand, now, I’m not talking about a study or two, here or there, showing some interesting little factoid that might ward off the risk of NEC. I’m talking about piles of rigorously-designed, peer-reviewed studies published over several years showing that the risk of NEC is dramatically reduced when the preterm infant is given donor human milk.

2. Enhanced immune function and immune system development

People often remark on the wonders of the “nutrition” that human milk offers. That’s true! But few people fully grasp that the benefits of nutrition in human milk are nowhere near as amazing as the immunological protection that it offers. Human milk is full of immunological factors that help to protect the baby’s health while their own immune system is developing.

Often, people also misunderstand the effects of pasteurization. Donor human milk here in the US undergoes pasteurization by a bank accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). (Similar organizations regulate  milk banks abroad.) Admittedly, pasteurization does reduce the immune cells. For example, secretory immunoglobulin (Ig) A is found at about 67-100% of its original activity after being processed. However, immunoglobulins are still present in pasteurized milk (and there are none in formula).

I cannot overstate the importance of these immune properties for any baby. But for a baby who is preterm and very low birth weight the immune protection is likely to be the difference between life and death. Presumably, awareness of this helped to fuel efforts to get TRICARE coverage of donor milk for families.  

3. Better growth and health

By “better growth” I don’t mean “bigger babies.” I mean, that because it is species-specific, human milk provides optimal growth and health for human babies. That’s thanks to better absorption of vitamins and minerals.

Furthermore, human milk is easier to digest, and less taxing on the infant’s systems (including the kidneys, heart, etc.) Limited data even suggest these benefits may last into the teen years, including heart health! In its statement on human milk, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) emphasizes that human milk is superior to formula milk.

Take advantage of TRICARE coverage of donor milk!

Sure, the mother’s own milk (what I call MOM — mother’s own milk) is the #1 choice. But if that is not an option (and Tricare points out that mother’s milk may be unavailable or unacceptable), ask for donor human milk.

I recently talked about the new TRICARE coverage of donor milk with Kari Haravitch, a DONA-certified postpartum doula with a military background. I hope you’ll catch Kari’s enthusiasm for the new policy, and what it means for military families —and hear all of her practical tips and explanations.  

You may need to speak up and speak often. Hospitals have formula that is readily available, and they have a long history of doling it out freely. But now you know that donor human milk can make a huge difference in your baby’s health and well-being. That knowledge will help you to pursue it for your baby. You may need to speak up even more persistently if your baby is born in a civilian hospital — personnel there might have no idea what you’re talking about.

If you know of a military family who is expecting a baby, or already has a sick or compromised baby, please use the “share” options below!

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