GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Thursday is the March of Dimes first World Prematurity Day, a time to raise awareness about some of our tiniest children. In Mississippi, one in eight babies will be born premature. Those that are born in the lower six counties will be cared for by south Mississippi's only Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Memorial Hospital in Gulfport.
"Sadly most people don't know they're going to have a preterm baby. It just happens."
Jennifer Parker is the division director for south Mississippi's March of Dimes. She works closely with Memorial Hosptial's NICU, helping to raise awareness about premature births.
"Right now the state of Mississippi has the highest rate of premature birth," explains Parker. "And our annual report card that comes out for all 50 states, Mississippi currently has the grade of an F."
That's why each year, about 260 babies born too soon make their way to the NICU to be closely monitored by the staff at Memorial Hospital.
Their lifeline is their food. And for many, that comes in the form of mother's milk.
"It's liquid gold is what we refer to it," says Stephanie Gable. "Because that's exactly what it is. It's the gold standard for nutrition."
Gable is one of the certified lactation consultants with Memorial Hospital's Breastfeeding Center. She says many moms who give birth to premature babies don't realize they have a vital role to play in their little one's recovery process.
"We tell the moms that deliver NICU babies, especially premature babies, that their milk is not just nourishment for their babies; it's actually medicine," says Gable. "Medicine that the doctors and the nurses and no one else can provide for their baby like they can."
NICU Medical Director Dr. David Kuhlmann agrees.
He says, "We know that breast milk is the best food for babies, and actually the more preterm you are, the more important that breast milk can be."
Dr. Kuhlmann is one of five neonatologists that care for babies at Memorial's NICU, and he sees first hand the difference breast milk can make in a baby's progress.
"Take for example a baby who has a gut infection. Their length of stay in the hospital is much longer. Their degree of illness is much worse," he explains. "And so if you can prevent one of those, then the breast milk definitely pays off."
Gable says the proof is in the statistics.
"If they receive a momma's milk or donated milk, then the chances of them getting that (gut infection) are . . . It decreases them by 86%, if they get full breast milk feedings. If they get partial, as much as 66%."
Donated breast milk is a relatively new concept at Memorial Hospital, but Gable says it has been a huge success.
"Some of these moms come in not even with the goal to breast feed. But when they find out how important it is, they start pumping," says Gable. "But we sometimes need milk for their babies before moms start producing the milk. We have the donor milk available, which kind of closes that gap until they produce their own."
"We explain to them that the moms are screened, the milk is pasteurized," adds Dr. Kuhlmann. "And so the risk of passing on anything bad to the baby is very low. But the benefits of using breast milk far outweigh any risk."
South Mississippi has a chance to help new moms provide their tiny new additions with the milk they need to survive. For a third year in a row, Memorial Hospital is in the running to win an on-line contest. The prize - $5,000 worth of products to support breastfeeding moms, like coolers, bottles and freezer packs. All you have to do is vote for our NICU in Medela's Virtual Milk Contest. Click here to vote, and enter the zip code 39501.