Medical Professional Publications

Milk as Medicine

Studies Examine the Nutritional Value of Human Milk

To Christina Valentine, MD, MS, RD, medical director for neonatal nutrition services at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and principal investigator in the Center for Clinical and Translational Research at The Research Institute, the catchphrase “milk does a body good” is more than an ad slogan; it’s a nutritional fact for newborn babies.

While other physician scientists examine how a baby’s aerodigestive system functions in order to improve how that baby feeds, Dr. Valentine focuses on the nutritional aspects of babies’ meals. Pictured below, Dr. Valentine works with a new mom in the NICU to explain the value of human milk.


Dr. Valentine says nutrition is vital, especially in the first couple weeks of life, as nutrition leads to healthy weight gain for the baby. Without proper weight gain, newborns are at risk for delays in mental development, especially cerebral palsy.

One of the most surefire ways to ensure a baby properly gains weight is for the baby to receive human milk. “Human milk is medicine,” said Dr. Valentine. Research has shown if as little as half of a baby’s feedings are human milk, the baby is significantly less likely to develop devastating diseases of infancy such as necrotizing enterocolitis, which destroys the bowel. This is one of the reasons Nationwide Children’s works closely with The Mother’s Milk Bank of Ohio, one of 10 operations in the country that is meant to collect, screen, process and distribute human milk donated from lactating mothers.

Dr. Valentine’s recent research has shown the nutritional value of donor milk as provided by milk banks. “We found that for the preterm infant, protein and the fatty acid Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) may be limited and the baby either needs supplementation in their diet or through mom’s diet,” said Dr. Valentine. To expand on the Ohio donor milk research, Dr. Valentine is now investigating whether milk from the other national milk banks have similar findings.

In addition to milk quality, Dr. Valentine’s research team aims to help mothers with the process of feeding their baby, as not all new mothers can properly breast feed. “We see many mothers who want to produce milk for their babies, but are physically unable to due to the early delivery of their premature infant,” said Dr. Valentine. Using mice models in collaboration with mentor Lynette Rogers, PhD, in the Center for Perinatal Research, Dr. Valentine’s team is studying how inflammation and conditions like diabetes, preeclampsia and obesity may affect the function of the mammary glands. “The goal is to identify inflammatory markers that could help determine early which mothers might have trouble lactating and find ways to help them,” said Dr. Valentine.

All of this research will benefit from new technology in Nationwide Children’s main campus neonatal intensive care unit. The team now has access to a PEA POD Infant Body Composition Machine, one of 50 in the world. PEA POD provides a noninvasive way to measure body composition in the smallest of infants. “We are now able to look at how our feeding protocols affect fat and muscle distribution in our patients. We hope to examine how human milk and increased amino acids impact body composition in babies compared with formula-fed babies,” said Dr. Valentine.

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