WASHINGTON - No one knows exactly why some babies are born prematurely, but some of the smallest premature babies weigh under 1,500 grams. These tiny babies -- called micro preemies -- can't afford to lose an ounce. At Children's National Medical Center in Washington, a team of specialists has come up with a plan to give these babies the best chance to live and thrive.
When Vanessa Ohakam gave birth to her son, she was only 24 weeks pregnant. Vanessa was terrified. Her newborn J.C. weighed just a little more than 736 grams or about one and a half pounds.
"I couldn't even change a diaper I was so nervous and anxious. He just looked so frail. But the nurses were very supportive and encouraging."
Ohakam and J.C. were lucky. J.C. was in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's National Medical Center in Washington during the course of a nutritional study.
A team of specialists at the hospital's NICU, the neo-natal intensive care unit, wanted to see if they could help J.C. and other very small pre-term babies boost their weight and improve their chances to thrive.
Michelande Ridore is a health care administrator who leads the team.
"Preemies, in particular, have high incidents of malnutrition as well as poor development," Ridore said.
As Ridore explained, these micro preemies have so little body fat, they can't afford to waste energy. Some are in blanketed incubators to encourage sleep so they don't move around and burn calories. The team focused on what -- and when -- the babies ate.
Caitlin Forsythe is the lead nurse on the study.
"We noticed that a lot of our practitioners (doctors) and the way that they were providing feedings for very low birth weight babies, those are babies weighing 1500 grams or less, that they were being fed different ways," Forsythe said.
The team wanted to standardize the nutrients in what the babies are fed because medical literature shows it helps babies thrive. Wherever possible, Forsythe said the team emphasized mother's milk.
"That's what's best for the premature babies. They tolerate it better, and it has great antibodies," Forsythe explained.
Judy Campbell, a lactation consultant, says because of the team's success, calls from mothers with preemies has nearly quadrupled.
"We know that mother's milk has growth factors in it that can't be replaced with any other substance," Campbell said.
The team standardized nutrition practices to include fortified donor breast milk for babies whose mothers couldn't provide their own, fortified mother's milk and formula, depending on each baby's needs. Forsythe said she is pleased with the results so far.
"We have been able to put protocols in place so that there's a standardization of care. We've also increased the amount of mother's own milk we've been providing for the babies which is great," Forsythe continued.
Ridore said there's a marked improvement in the babies ability to thrive, “We were able to improve their weight by 30 percent."
The team isn't quite done. They want to tweak the existing nutrition practices to see if they can improve their results. Once they are finished, they will publish the results so other micro-preemies can benefit, too.