Children's Hospital Colorado

New Technology Supports NICU Patients Through Targeted Nutrition

Children's Hospital Colorado | July 25, 2022

Breast milk is often referred to as the first human super food; however, for babies born prematurely, their growth rate is three times greater than that of a term baby. Therefore, their nutritional needs are much higher. Breast milk may not naturally contain enough of the macronutrients needed for their development. But what if a “nutrient label for breast milk” existed, enabling a medical team to target the exact amount of nutrients needed for each premature baby to grow and thrive? That’s exactly what a new human milk analyzer provides for babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Hospital Colorado (Children's Colorado).

System adjusts to the nutritional needs of each baby

Children's Colorado utilizes a new state-of-the-art system to aid healthcare professionals in measuring macronutrients in breast milk, including the concentration of fats, carbohydrates and proteins. With this new tool, the team can collect and analyze breast milk so they can supplement the milk as needed to ensure the nutritional content meets the specific needs of each baby.

“Proper nutrition is one of most important things for preterm babies, especially sick ones. For many years, we have used standard fortification to support their development. Now, we are able to provide a custom approach to feeding our NICU babies,” said Kirsten Halstead, MBA, RN, IBCLC, clinical manager of lactation support services at Children’s Colorado. “Key indicators of healthy development from head circumferences to lean muscle mass are improved when babies have the exact nutrients they need. Plus, there is a decrease in issues such as bronchopulmonary dysplasia and retinopathy of prematurity.”

Analyzing macronutrients for growth and development

The macronutrient makeup of milk can vary from parent to parent or even within the same parent from hour to hour, day to day or month to month. By knowing the nutritional makeup of each individual parent’s milk, the team can ensure that the milk is fortified to exactly what the baby needs, providing the baby with a better chance at healthy development.

Twice a week at Children’s Colorado’s NICU, the lactation team analyzes a parent’s milk; they enter the macronutrients of the milk into the baby’s records, where the dietitian reads the results and then the milk is fortified based on the makeup of the parent’s milk and the needs of their baby.

Technology enables identification of potential issues

Ultimately, Children’s Colorado’s goal is to observe every low-birth-weight baby (less than 1,500 grams or approximately 3 lbs) when they begin feeding and then use targeted breast milk fortification. If the baby is getting the exact macronutrients it needs but still isn’t growing, the team can determine and address other potential issues more quickly, such as difficulty with nutrient absorption.

Committed to improving health outcomes

This is not the first time Children’s Colorado’s NICU has been recognized as a leader. Their human milk lab, where they centralize and store breast milk, was not only the first of its kind in Colorado, but also one of the first in the country.

“I love working for an organization that believes in helping our tiniest patients get their best possible start at life. This investment in analyzing and fortifying breast milk is another example of Children’s Colorado’s commitment to paving the way for improved outcomes for our patients,” said Halstead.