Impact of Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Admission on Bacterial Colonization of Donated Human Milk

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Unpasteurized human donor milk typically contains a variety of bacteria. The impact of neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) admission of the donor’s infant and duration of lactation on bacterial contamination of human milk is unknown.

Research aim:

This study aimed (a) to describe the frequency/concentration of skin commensal bacteria and pathogens in unpasteurized human donor milk and (b) to assess the impact of NICU admission and (c) the duration of milk expression on bacterial colonization of donated milk.


The authors conducted a retrospective cohort study of human milk donated to the Rogers Hixon Ontario Human Milk Bank from January 2013 to June 2014. Milk samples from each donor were cultured every 2 weeks.


The study included 198 donor mothers, of whom 63 had infants admitted to the NICU. Of 1,289 cultures obtained, 1,031 (80%) had detectable bacterial growth and 363 (28%) yielded bacterial growth in excess of 107 cfu/L, a local threshold for allowable bacteria prior to pasteurization. The mean (standard deviation) donation period per donor was 13.0 (7.5) weeks. Milk from mothers with NICU exposure had significantly higher concentrations of commensals, but not pathogens, at every time period compared with other mothers. For every 1-month increase in donation from all donors, the odds ratio of presence of any commensal in milk increased by 1.13 (95% confidence interval [1.03, 1.23]) and any pathogen by 1.31 (95% confidence interval [1.20, 1.43]).


Commensal bacteria were more abundant in donor milk expressed from mothers exposed to neonatal intensive care. Bacterial contamination increased over the milk donation period.

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