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Got Breast Milk?

The Link between Cow's Milk-Based Baby Formula and NEC

Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC) is a digestive bacteria that primarily affects premature infants. This potentially life-threatening bacteria attacks a baby's intestinal lining, causing inflammation.
For premature infants, developing NEC can cause added complications. These children often suffer extreme discomfort, infection, and sepsis. Eventually, if left undiagnosed or untreated, the bacteria causes severe damage to the gastric lining, which may need correcting with emergency surgery or, worse, death.
Necrotizing Enterocolitis continues to be a growing concern in hospitals across the county. The Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh lists NEC as "the most common gastrointestinal (GI) emergency in U.S. neonatal intensive care units."1

Why are Neonatal Units Overrun with NEC Infections?

Over the last three decades, medical studies have consistently linked cow's milk-based baby formula to NEC in premature infants.
Despite research supporting the nutritional superiority of feeding breast milk to children born prematurely, cow's milk-based formula produced remains the standard practice for treating low birth weight in neonatal care units across the United States.
Even worse, there's evidence showing that manufacturers that produce these products have been aware of the link between NEC and cow's milk-based formula for decades.
Despite this link, baby formulas containing cow's milk have no warning label. Worse, manufacturers have yet to alert the public or the medical community of the risks of feeding cow's milk-based formulas to premature infants. Many of these companies continue to advertise their products as an effective and safe way to treat low birth weight.

NEC Risks

Typically, when children develop Necrotizing Enterocolitis, the infection occurs within the first two weeks of the child's life.
According to the Merck Manual, roughly 2,000 to 3,000 children develop NEC per year. Of those infected, 90% were infants born prematurely.2
Research has shown that most children who develop Necrotizing Enterocolitis have been fed cow's milk-based formula.
The Mayo Clinic notes that "premature babies who receive only breast milk have a much lower risk of developing NEC."3
So why is NEC so much more common in premature children who have been fed cow's milk-based formula? The answer may come down to underdeveloped and compromised digestion and immune systems.
For children who develop NEC, it seems as though the issue starts in the gut. Because premature children have weak digestive systems, consuming cow's milk-based formula may be difficult on immature stomachs.
Further complications arise when an infection occurs, especially if the child's immune system can't handle it. NEC causes inflammation to the stomach lining, which, in severe cases, can lead to necrosis (or the dying of the tissue) of the child's stomach lining. Ultimately, if necrosis progresses, it can lead to bacteria leaking into the child's bloodstream.

NEC Symptoms

As parents of premature infants, it's crucial to have all the relevant information and remain vigilant.
Symptoms of NEC are swollen, red, or tender stomach, abdominal pressure, diarrhea, changes in temperature, irregular breathing, and low blood pressure.
Some sources include lethargy and vomiting as symptoms to monitor.
Most children recover from NEC, but Pediatrics Nationwide reports, "Nearly 50 percent of survivors of NEC develop significant developmental and cognitive disability."4
Although most children do overcome NEC infections, lingering complications are not uncommon, and even a small risk is too much of a gamble for parents of premature infants.

How is NEC Treated?

Necrotizing enterocolitis is a progressive disease, so prompt identification and quick treatment are crucial.
If identified and treated quickly, most children do recover from NEC.
Treatment of NEC usually includes stopping oral feeding and the administration of antibiotics. While your child is being treated and recovering from NEC, your provider will likely supply all nutrients intravenously.
In severe cases where the infection has caused the intestinal tissue to die, surgery is often necessary to remove the affected tissue.

What are the Lasting Effects of NEC?

While most infants diagnosed with NEC do recover, some studies suggest that up to 50% of children with NEC continue to struggle from lasting side effects.
Long-term side effects include:

Developmental delays

Growth failure

Narrowing of the intestines

Abdominal infections

Delayed neurodevelopment


Short bowel/gut syndrome

What is the mortality rate for children with NEC?

According to Pediatrics Nationwide, "NEC occurs in 1 to 3 per 1,000 live births ... [and] carries a 30 to 50 percent mortality rate."4
Typically NEC infections occur within the first two weeks of life. Furthermore, risk factors for developing NEC include formula feeding and abnormal bacterial colonization of the bowel.
The best outcomes rely on a swift diagnosis and treatment when it comes to NEC.

How Can You Prevent NEC?

The truth is we still need to learn a lot more about NEC. But most researchers agree that it's good to go back to the basics when it comes to prevention.
When it comes to infant health, there is no substitution for the nutritional value of breast milk.
According to Pediatrics Nationwide, the first step toward prevention is trading cow's milk for breast milk.
"Just a drop of breast milk ... can start the process of coating the digestive tract with all the good things that will help the baby thrive."4
The article notes the current research into using probiotics to treat NEC and even the possibility of using donor breast milk if the baby's mother cannot produce the milk herself.

Why File a Lawsuit?

Premature infants come out of the womb fighting for their lives. Doctors have to monitor weights constantly, and parents fear the tiniest germ reaching their child's compromised immune system.
For premature babies, every day is an uphill battle.
As researchers find out more about the link between NEC and cow's milk-based formula, the mounting evidence proves that the companies who manufacture these products knew the dangers and did nothing to protect young American families.
Instead of acting responsibly, baby formula manufacturers put profit over people.
These companies must be held responsible for the devastation and pain they've caused.
If your child was diagnosed with necrotizing enterocolitis after consuming cow's milk-based infant formula, you might be entitled to compensation.
While we understand that a lawsuit will not reverse the damage caused by these negligible companies, it can help ease the financial and emotional burden.
Reach out to one of our attorneys today to understand your options. Get the legal help you need to take action and move forward by filing a lawsuit.

Page Sources:

1. Necrotizing Enterocolitis Symptoms and Treatment. UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Necrotizing Enterocolitis in Children. Accessed May 31, 2022.

2. Cochran, William J. Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC). Merck Manual; August 2021. Accessed May 31, 2022.

3. Premature Birth. Mayo Clinic. Premature birth - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic. Accessed May 30, 2022.

4. Roth, Abby. What’s Next for NEC? Pediatrics Nationwide; April 19, 2019. What's Next for NEC? – Pediatrics Nationwide. Accessed May 30, 2022.

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