Breast milk is babies' perfect food. It's even more important for the most vulnerable babies, those born smaller than three-and-a-half pounds. But they're the least likely to get it, especially if they're born to low-income or black mothers.
Now specialists are targeting frightened mothers of the smallest preemies to try to change that, with strategies that range from free breast pumps to bringing breast-feeding "peer counselors" into the intensive care unit to train moms to nurse.
"This baby has all these tubes, and they're so small. It's scary," says Benjamin, who now is the first salaried ICU peer counselor at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, part of a study to see how well the training program works. "But when the baby does well and is sucking, they're surprised, and it's a good experience."
She remembers watching her own daughter, now 4, fatten up. "It's a good feeling to say, 'I made this baby grow."'
Such programs are a big change for neonatal intensive care, brought about because of research in just the last few years proving that breast milk markedly lowers the chances of infection and a life-threatening bowel inflammation in very low birthweight babies.
At Rush, 97 percent of the smallest preemies are breast-fed for at least a while - far better than the national average for healthy babies - and 64 percent still get some breast milk once they go home.
"We emphasize to the mothers how the milk is really a medication for their babies," says Paula Meier, a Rush nursing professor who heads the hospital's lactation program and recently published its techniques in a medical journal.