When Rosmarie Cantu of Manteca gave birth to her third child at the Kaiser Permanente Modesto Medical Center, she worried baby Joel would have trouble latching to her breast, depriving him of the exclusive health benefits human milk provides.
Knowing her previous 2 children had trouble latching, staff at the hospital offered her donated and pasteurized human breast milk as part of a program that started at the hospital in 2021. By the end of 2024, all 15 Kaiser Permanente birthing centers in Northern California will have replicated the program that began in Modesto.
The milk offered to new moms is purchased by Kaiser Permanente from local human milk banks that receive donations from lactating mothers.
“I think it’s great for when you can’t produce milk on your own or if your baby has trouble latching and breast feeding,” said Cantu. “He got some of the donated milk while I’ve been here, but after that, he latched and began feeding on his own. I’m so happy. I’m going home today.”
Before the program was started, new moms who struggled with breastfeeding were offered formula while they were in the hospital after giving birth.
Now new moms whose babies are offered human breast milk while mom works out any breastfeeding issues gives them confidence that they can do it on their own when they go home, said Marcial Salvador, MD, a pediatrician at the Modesto Medical Center who helped get the program going. The moms are also given education about the benefits of human breast milk, before they are discharged.
‘Good for the babies, good for the mothers’
“One of the biggest worries among new moms is that their supply is not good enough,” said Dr. Salvador. “We offer donated breast milk as a bridge for moms who need extra milk until their supply is established. Just that peace of mind allows them to be more confident and dedicated to breastfeeding.”
The neo-natal intensive care unit at the Modesto Medical Center began giving premature babies donated human breast milk in 2017, and that program was then expanded to all new moms, said Jennifer Rangel, RN, regional program manager in Patient Care Services and Maternal Child Health.
“It started as my passion project when I was the neonatal intensive care unit manager in Modesto,” said Rangel, who began parenthood with triplets and has 6 children. “I struggled horribly with breastfeeding. With my fourth kid, I had an emergency cesarian section at 29 weeks and no breast milk to give.”
Rangel said she “freaked out knowing how important breast milk is to prevent gut infections in preemie babies,” and for their overall health. Benefits of breast milk for all babies include strengthening the immune system and brain development, and decreasing the risk of ear infections, sudden infant death syndrome, leukemia, asthma, obesity, juvenile diabetes, and food allergies, to name more than a few.
“We got the program up and running in the NICU in Modesto, and then I got pregnant again and I thought we were missing this whole subset of patients outside the NICU who have medical or maternal issues where they can’t produce enough,” said Rangel. “And I thought wouldn’t it be nice to offer it, so they don’t have to struggle?”
In 2020 the hospital started a breast feeding bootcamp for nurses to make sure they understood the importance of breastfeeding and were able to pass on that education to new moms, said NICU Nurse Manager Christine Pierce.
“All that education has helped get the percentage of new moms who exclusively breast feed up from 72% to over 80%,” said Pierce. “We also saw an increase of 22% for Black and Hispanic moms.”
Dr. Salvador said it took some time to get the program established outside the NICU because it required intensive nurse education and support, and it had never been done in Kaiser Permanente Northern California.
“In our minds, we knew it was good for the babies and good for the mothers,” he said. “It was the right thing, so we didn’t waver in our commitment to making it happen.”