The Link Between Baby Formula & NEC Risks For Preemies

Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a life-threatening condition that mainly affects infants born prematurely. However, NEC is far more common among preemies fed baby formula made from cow’s milk. While there are multiple risk factors that can lead to NEC diagnosis in preemies, bovine baby formula is most avoidable.

Do Full-Term Babies Develop Necrotizing Enterocolitis?

While doctors and researchers don’t know exactly what causes necrotizing enterocolitis, it primarily affects babies born pre-term. Studies show no more than 1 in every 100 babies (1%) born full-term develop NEC, on average. Preemies born weighing 1500 grams or less, have congenital heart defects or low oxygen levels have higher NEC incidence rates. In some cases, preemies that experience hypoxia during labor and childbirth directly result from negligence by the doctor or hospital.

Since it’s unclear whether a specific virus or bacteria may spread NEC, NICU babies are subject to stringent medical protocols. Hospitals sometimes notice NEC happens in “clusters” that affect multiple infants in the same nursery. While there’s no known cases of NEC spreading from one baby to another, caregivers remain vigilant and follow strict precautions.

Understanding NEC Prevalence Rates Among Preemies

Preemies are far more likely to develop NEC, but certain risk factors also play a role – especially birth weight:

  • 3% of babies born weighing 1251-1500 grams (2 lbs. 12.13 oz.-3 lbs. 4.91 oz.) develop NEC
  • 11% of babies born weighing less than 750 grams (1 lb. 10.46 oz.) develop NEC

Typically, NEC affects premature babies a few weeks to a month post-birth. Very low birth-weight babies or with serious post-birth infections are also at risk for NEC.

Studies Show Increased NEC Risk for Preemies Fed Baby Formula

Studies compared NEC incidence rates in pre-term infants exclusively fed human breast milk vs. cow’s milk-based formulas. They found that formula-fed preemies are 6-10x more likely to develop NEC. Another study found more than 11% preemies fed formula exclusively made for pre-term infants developed NEC. Comparatively, preemies that received human milk more than 98% of the time showed NEC incidence rates of 1.3%. That’s about the same as the NEC risk rate to standard birth-weight babies born full-term. For preemies fed a mix of human milk and bovine-based formula designed for pre-term babies, 8.2% developed NEC.

Further, babies fed human donor milk had identical outcomes to those exclusively breast-fed by their birth mothers. The implications of these studies are clear: Feeding preemies human milk exclusively is key for minimizing NEC risks.

If you would like to learn more about negligence and the role it plays in your case, please contact Levin, Rojas, Camassar, and Reck, LLC today.