On Your Health

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The Unsung Heroes of the NICU Helping the Tiniest Babies Thrive

The Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at INTEGRIS Baptist Medical Center seems to be a quiet, tranquil place where more than 450 of the tiniest, most fragile, premature babies begin their lives and journeys to health each year. But behind the hushed, peaceful atmosphere is a complex supply chain operation with life-and-death stakes at its core every single day.

The INTEGRIS Baptist NICU treats babies who range in age from newborn to four months. Usually there are between 20 to 25 babies at the NICU, each infant fighting to grow and develop in a place where successful gains are measured by the ounce.

Each baby in the NICU must be fed eight times a day. That is 200 feedings happening in the unit every day. The latest science confirms that mother's milk is best for these tiny infants -- nutritionally, developmentally and physiologically. The NICU's goal is for all babies less than 34 weeks gestation to receive only human milk (either their mother's own or human milk from a bank). In addition, many of the preemies need that milk fortified with nutrients or supplements for optimal nutrition and weight gain.

Bottom line, that's a massive amount of milk that needs to be pumped, tracked, frozen, defrosted, measured, weighed, fortified and fed to the right baby several times a day.

The safe and accurate distribution of the right milk to the right baby is thanks to some unsung heroes of the NICU: Human Milk Technicians. These specialized medical staff members are part scientist, part prep cook, part cheerleader and part production manager. The human milk they manage is as important as medicine to the babies who need it to thrive. Since September is Neonatal Intensive Care Awareness Month, it is the perfect time to take a closer look at the remarkable job the Milk Techs perform to keep the babies healthy and safe.

milk tech measuring milk
Courtney Alexander, a Milk Tech at the INTEGRIS Baptist NICU

The Milk Techs are in constant contact with the breastfeeding mothers to let them know if they are keeping up with their baby's needs or if they need to increase supply. The Milk Techs monitor, measure and mix every ounce of milk fed to the babies. They handle all milk fortification. They maintain storage refrigerators and freezers to ensure all milk is properly labeled, handled and rotated. They communicate with the nurses on the type of feeding each baby requires (in a bottle or syringe for gavage feedings).

The Milk Techs are deeply invested in the care and success of each baby. When they see a baby born at less than one pound, they understand the importance of the job. The milk they mix and prepare each day helps that baby develop. They watch with pride when the growing baby is finally able to breastfeed, gain weight and go home with thankful parents.

Ezekiel Bills is just such a baby. He was born prematurely back in April and as a 2-week-old baby he weighed just a pound and a half. He's been at the NICU for over four months now and Sara Bills, his mother, has been a presence at the NICU every day. She's worked very closely with the Milk Techs to make sure she pumps as much milk for little Zeke as he needs. By late August his weight had risen to almost seven pounds, and soon his grateful parents will be able to take their healthy baby boy home.

Thanks to the Milk Techs at the INTEGRIS NICU, this happy ending is a story hundreds of parents get to tell every year.

Sara and Ezekiel Bills at the INTEGRIS NICU Sara and Ezekiel Bills at the INTEGRIS NICU A freezer of labeled breast milk at the INTEGRIS NICU A freezer of labeled breast milk at the INTEGRIS NICU bottles Hundreds of bottles are used to feed the NICU babies every day

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