Donor milk for preterm infants SAHMRI’s collaborative approach

Did you know that babies born between 32 and 36 weeks gestation make up the largest proportion of early (preterm) births? Did you also know that it is common for mothers who give birth prematurely to have difficulties producing enough breast milk for their baby, especially in the first few weeks after birth?

This is why SAHMRI is collaborating with Australian Red Cross Lifeblood (Lifeblood) and five hospitals across three states to deliver the GIFT trial. The research team completed an initial study in 2021-2023 involving 200 babies to assess feasibility and has now been awarded funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to make this a large study involving more than 2000 babies. The principal investigator of the study, Professor Alice Rumbold, answered a few questions about the study.

What inspired this research?

When babies born preterm are in hospital, they are often fed infant formula when milk from their own mother is unavailable or in short supply. However, formula can sometimes be harder for babies born preterm to digest, causing vomiting and bloating and a problem known as feed intolerance. To avoid this, many hospitals in Australia provide what we call ‘donor milk’ to babies born preterm. At present, this is usually only available to babies born very small or very early (before 32 weeks of pregnancy).

What is donor milk?

Donor milk is human milk, donated from another breastfeeding mum, that has been pasteurised (heat-treated) to kill any bacteria and viruses that could be present in the milk.

What is the GIFT Trial?

The GIFT Trial is studying whether access to donor milk should be expanded to include babies born just a few weeks early, between 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. We intend to find out whether giving donor milk instead of formula, until their mother’s own milk has fully established, reduces episodes of feed intolerance and helps the babies transition to being fed at the breast. We are also studying whether this reduces the time they need to spend in hospital after birth.

How does it work?

We are collaborating with Lifeblood, which supplies donated breast milk to hospitals for vulnerable babies whose mothers are unable to produce enough of their own milk for their baby. Lifeblood donors go through a strict screening process, similar to the screening done for blood donors, that includes testing for infectious diseases and questions about the donor’s health and lifestyle.

How do you find participants?

We have a very small window of opportunity to enrol participants in the GIFT Trial. Babies must be born at 32 36 weeks gestation, be less than 4 days old and require more milk than the mother is able to produce. So far, we have found that mothers who are given information during preterm labour or prior to delivery have a higher likelihood of enrolling in the study, so we’re trying our best to get the word out there!

Our research team is based at the SAHMRI Women and Kids offices at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and we have nurses onsite to determine if babies are eligible. Any new mothers who are interested will only be included in the study if the health care team determines that the baby needs more milk than the mother can provide.

If you would like more information on the study, you can contact or phone 0459 811 712.

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