The story of Iris

Breast milk for premature children like Iris is both food and medicine

Marina Knežević Barišić
Rođenu u 26. tjednu trudnoće sa svega 850 grama, Iris je otporna na sve
UNICEF/Knežević Barišić
09 September 2019

Iris. A strong girl with cherub cheeks wins our hearts in an instant. When we met her in “Sveti Duh” University Hospital, Iris was 76 days old. Seventy-six days of hospital care. Seventy-six days of struggle for a girl born in the 26th week of pregnancy weighing only 850 grams. However, Iris is resilient, just like the flower after which she is named. Her mum, Mirela, expected her girl in August, but she arrived much earlier and surprised everyone.

“The beginning was extremely stressful. Paediatricians explained that breast milk was medicine for all premature babies, and one of the most important things for our girl was to begin pumping as soon as possible. I pumped breast milk every three hours. It was hard, but at the time that was the only and most important thing I could do for Iris.”

Every drop of breast milk, every single gram more for babies such as Iris means life, says Dr. Anita Pavičić Bošnjak from the Neonatal Department of the “Sveti Duh” University Hospital in Zagreb.

“It has been proven that outcomes for premature children who are fed breast milk are much better. Infections are rare and so is the frequency of necrotizing enterocolitis. This is a serious inflammation of the intestinal mucosa that often leads to severe complications. Sometimes, unfortunately, it also leads to death. The benefits of breast milk or donated human milk for such children are immeasurable.

Mala Iris u narucje svoje mame Mirele
UNICEF/Knežević Barišić

When the child’s mother’s breast milk is not available, premature girls and boys must be provided with donated human milk. This is made possible by a human milk bank. There are currently 213 in Europe. It is planned to open 17 more, and one of them is the first milk bank in Croatia. It is a complex institution that organises the collection, preparation, storing and distribution of milk, explains Dr. Pavičić Bošnjak:

“It all starts with donors who choose the humane act of donating their milk. They have to be healthy and they must be tested for certain diseases to make sure they are eligible. The milk that is donated is also tested, and the most vulnerable children receive milk as therapy from their doctor.”

Every year, 2,300 premature babies are born in Croatia, while around 400 require intensive care, like Iris. Breast milk is medicine for them and every single gram more means a step closer to health and life. Mirela is aware of this as she kept track of Iris’s progress with great concern.

“When she was nine days old, I held her in my arms for the first time. She was so small, she was only 730 grams, because at first she ‘dropped’ some weight. Those moments cuddling my little girl meant everything, they brought us both back to life, and they helped me keep up my strength and gave me peace. I felt that she was there and that I was there for her.”

Before she was released from hospital, Iris weighed 2,140 grams. Thanks to breast milk, she had tripled her birth weight. Something that seemed completely out of reach at the beginning became a reality, so Iris went home exactly three weeks before her initial due date. Breast milk played a key role. That is why it is important to make available those first drops of life for every child through the first milk bank in Croatia.