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An Ethical Case for the Provision of Human Milk in the NICU

Froh, Elizabeth B. MS, RN, PhD(c); Spatz, Diane L. PhD, RN-BC, FAAN

Section Editor(s): Catlin, Anita

doi: 10.1097/ANC.0000000000000109
Ethical Issues in Newborn Care

Despite recommendations from the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children's Fund, the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Breastfeeding, and others, only a small percentage of infants in the United States receive exclusive human milk for the first 6 months of life. In the United States, decisions related to infant feeding are determined by surrogate or proxy in place of the neonatal voice, using the “best interest principle” as the guiding ethical focus. Given the established research on the benefits of an exclusive human milk diet compared with artificial nutrition (infant formula), infant feeding decisions made for the critically ill neonate should rest entirely in the infant's best interest, not solely in parental authority. If the mother's own milk is not available or its use is contraindicated, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends donor human milk.1 However, the preverbal voice of the neonate makes it difficult to isolate the best interest of the infant separated from the family unit. Using a case exemplar, it is proposed that the means in which infant feeding decisions are made for the critically ill infant should rest entirely in the infant's best interest, not parental authority, during the course of care in the hospital setting. The best interest principle, surrogate decision making, parental authority, and proxy consent are reviewed. Furthermore, a case for the best interest principle to further illustrate the importance of the infant's voice in relationship to enteral feeding decisions is provided. Finally, implications for clinical practice are offered.

University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, Philadelphia, and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Correspondence: Elizabeth B. Froh, MS, RN, PhD(c), Office 2W78, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia–Main, 34th St and Civic Center Blvd, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

© 2014 by The National Association of Neonatal Nurses