Mother’ milk therapy offers premature babies chance to go home sooner

EDINBURG — Weighing 2 pounds, 7 ounces, 12-day-old Rebekah Espinosa finds herself at the forefront of a study that may ultimately help micro premature babies like her go home from the hospital sooner and be healthier when they get there.

Born in her mother’s 28th week of pregnancy, Rebekah is in the neonatal intensive care unit at DHR Health Women’s Hospital, where she lay Monday in one of dozens of incubators lined up in rows.

The babies are nestled in blankets under plastic shields, connected to hoses, tubes and flashing monitors.

Rebekah’s fingers and toes are smaller than Tic-Tacs. A lighted node bandaged to her foot shines straight through. She’s smaller than most babies, but bigger than some of her roommates in the NICU.

Monitors constantly beep and buzz in the unit. Staff quietly glide among the incubators, treating their patients. A woman sits quietly by an incubator near Rebekah’s, staring at the baby inside, as does another couple beside a baby in another row.

It’s where Rebekah is undergoing a treatment that involves allowing the immunoprotective components of her mother’s breast milk or colostrum to be absorbed by the lymphoid tissues at the back of the mouth behind the oral cavity. The goal is to make her stronger faster in order to get her out of the NICU sooner.

Rebekah’s mother, who is 21, hasn’t been able to hold her daughter. The appeal of a treatment that can strengthen babies enough to leave the NICU earlier is strong.

As part of Rebekah’s treatment, a speech language pathologist gently syringes two drops of milk into her mouth every six hours.

It is a delicate task that on Monday fell to Gloria Cavazos, a speech language pathologist.

“It’s scary because you don’t know how the baby is going to react,” she said. “But once you do it more and you get to know who she is — the babies, they all have different personalities — so you kind of know what to expect.”

Cavazos raises the top from Rebekah’s incubator. Rebekah doesn’t much care for this. While it’s a bit warm in the unit for those around the infant, for her, it’s a little chilly. She can hear the beeps, too, and she doesn’t care much for those either.

Next, Cavazos delicately arranges her patient, straightening Rebekah in the blankets and squaring her small legs, soothingly talking to her.

A colleague gently cradles Rebekah, simulating the sort of pressure she would have felt in the womb.

Cavazos occasionally shifts her attention to a monitor nearby, waiting for Rebekah’s vitals to stabilize enough to complete the procedure.

“The noise, the light — it’s a lot for them to process,” she said.

Ideally, Cavazos would then take a syringe with colostrum or milk and place a drop on one side of Rebekah’s mouth and a drop on the other.

No dice this time. Cavazos suspects Rebekah needs to use the restroom, so she’ll try again in half-an-hour or so.

It’s an awful lot of fuss over 0.1 milliliters of breast milk. Cavazos and the other women in the unit treating Rebekah on Monday said it’s well worth it.

Gabby Reyna, a lactation consultant, holds up a container of colostrum — a nutrient-rich substance that mothers produce before breast milk.

Yellow gold, Reyna calls it. It looks more like eggnog than milk, she observes admiringly.

“We all know — because there’s so many studies saying — that colostrum is super important, because it has special properties for the infants, especially for the micro-premature babies,” she said.

Reyna is a colostrum and breast milk evangelist. She talks about it passionately.

When Reyna’s daughter was born 18 years ago with Type 1 diabetes, doctors gave her a list of issues she might face.

Reyna’s daughter never encountered such problems, however, and is now preparing to attend college at an Ivy League school.

Reyna attributes the success to breastfeeding.

“All the stuff they told me that might go wrong, somehow it got corrected with the breast milk,” she said. “So I’m talking as a mother, not really as a lactation consultant, and I want the mothers to just give it a try.”

Reyna hopes the treatment will increase the number of months mothers breastfeed. She said it could have psychological benefits for mothers and physical benefits for their children.

“It’s going to improve their immune system, their digestive system,” said Sarah Fryer, a dietitian. “Improve the overall health by taking the mother’s milk.”

Rebekah is one of two babies in the unit receiving the treatment. The study team members said they’re the only ones in the Rio Grande Valley they know of providing the treatment.

The program’s timing is notable, beginning amid a nationwide shortage of baby formula.

Cavazos gently lowered the top of the incubator back over Rebekah Monday afternoon and waited for conditions for administering the treatment to improve.

She’ll have a lot more drops to give before any findings can be drawn from the study.

Reyna gets a call. There’s a mother downstairs who can’t get her baby to latch. She buzzes away, continuing her crusade for breast milk.

“There’s always something new in the NICU,” she said. “Next day, something else.”

mwilson@themonitor.com

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