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Baby formula is a quick, convenient and easily accessible way to give newborns all the nutrition they need, especially if a mother or baby struggles with breastfeeding. Grocery store aisles are lined with a variety of FDA-approved options to suit every parent’s preferences, and while breast milk is always the best option, most formula is a perfectly safe alternative.

But research shows that for premature infants (preemies), or those born before 37 weeks, cow’s milk baby formula significantly increases the risks of serious complications, especially a gastrointestinal disease called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). Preemies’ low oxygen and blood flow leave them vulnerable to several intestinal problems, but NEC is among the most dangerous and can be fatal if untreated.

Premature babies are already struggling to survive outside the womb – unable to fight infections, absorb proper nutrition or sometimes even breathe on their own. Many premature infants need to spend their first weeks or months of life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where formula feeding is a common practice. Multiple studies have shown cow’s milk-based formula heightens the risk of premature infants developing NEC. Some findings include:

  • NEC affects around one in 1,000 live births but has a mortality rate of up to 50% in infants who weigh less than 1500 grams (approximately 3.3lbs)
  • One study found that preemies fed exclusively formula are 6-10 times more likely to develop NEC than those fed breast milk
  • A report by the U.S. Surgeon General found that premature infants are 138% more likely to contract the disease if not breastfed

What is Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC)?

Necrotizing enterocolitis is a condition that inflames the intestinal walls and kills healthy tissue, sometimes allowing for a tear in the wall allowing harmful waste bacteria to leak into the abdomen.

Most NEC babies make a full recovery, but some will develop chronic gastrointestinal issues or need multiple surgeries to correct problems such as narrowing intestines and brain/ developmental delays. 

Symptoms appear within two weeks of birth and include low blood pressure or heart rate, lethargy, food not digesting properly, bloody or green stool, green vomit, and swollen abdomen.

Treatment options include replacing formula with an IV for nutrition, antibiotics, ventilators for babies struggling to breathe, and surgery. 

Why Is Cow’s Milk Formula Bad for Preemies?

Preemies fed any kind of formula are already at a disadvantage, especially those under three pounds. Their underdeveloped systems and malabsorption problems make it especially difficult to digest cow milk, which is harder to break down and lacks the immunity-boosting properties of breast milk. These factors combined increase their risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis.

The research linking cow’s milk-based formula to NEC has prompted many hospitals to start using donated breast milk over formula in their neonatal intensive care units, but not all facilities have enough to go around. 

Mothers who can’t provide natural breast milk or access donated milk turn to formula. Enfamil and Similac, two popular brands of bovine formula, both make a version, especially for preemies, and even market them as safer than natural breast milk. Their sales representatives overwhelm exhausted and stressed preemie parents while in the hospital with free samples and brochures, who often accept their claims without question. 

Parents may not realize they have other choices, including Prolacta, which offers a preemie formula entirely composed of donated breast milk. Preemie parents also may not know much about necrotizing enterocolitis and the dangers lurking in formula – until their baby is threatened by or even succumbs to the disease.

Parents Fighting Back with NEC Lawsuits

The manufacturers of Enfamil and Similac, Mead Johnson and Abbott Laboratories are facing dozens of NEC lawsuits claiming negligence, defective product and wrongful death from preemie parents who allege that the companies knew about the risks of NEC from their cow’s milk-based formulas and did nothing to warn consumers.

More than 30 of the cases were filed in Illinois, the home base for both manufacturers, on behalf of 85 preemies. The parents’ legal teams have also asked that the federally filed cases be consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL). Now granted, all pretrial proceedings will  go before the Honorable Chief Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer to streamline the process of this litigation. 

Abbott’s problems continue to mount as they were also recently compelled by an FDA investigation to voluntarily recall some of their powdered baby formulas. The formulas were all produced at a single Abbott facility in Michigan and were contaminated with deadly bacteria. Four infants in three states were affected; all were hospitalized, and one passed away. 

If your premature infant consumed Enfamil or Similac and developed NEC, you should speak to an NEC baby formula personal injury lawyer. Whether you lost your child or are facing years of possible surgeries and doctor’s visits, or even if your baby made a full recovery, you likely have a strong case for compensation. The preeminent law team at Childers, Schlueter & Smith is committed to securing the justice you and your family deserve. Please give us a call at 1-800-641-0098 or contact us here to begin your free case review. 

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