Over the years, doctors, nurses and new mothers have learned how beneficial breastfeeding is for new babies. But many people may not realize how powerful mother's milk is, especially when it comes to strengthening the bodies of very sick newborns.

Pediatric researchers at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia presented findings from a continuous quality improvement (CQI) project in which nurses helped mothers attain high rates of breast-feeding in very sick babies -- newborns with complex birth defects requiring surgery and intensive care.

Many of these highly vulnerable newborns immediately experience a paradoxical situation. Their mother's milk helps to fend off infection and provides easily digestible, nutritious ingredients that can reduce the infant's stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

But because the babies are often in critical condition, breast-feeding may not be considered a priority, or even be feasible, when compared to urgent medical problems.

"Human milk is important for all newborns, but especially for sick infants," said project mentor Diane L. Spatz, Ph.D., R.N.-B.C., nurse researcher, of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Breast milk protects an infant in the NICU from necrotizing enterocolitis -- a devastating disease of the bowel -- and from a host of infectious diseases.

Spatz and co-author Taryn M. Edwards, B.S.N., R.N.-B.C., also of Children's Hospital, tracked 80 newborns in the Children's Hospital NICU during 2008 and 2009. All were born with complex surgical anomalies, such as abdominal wall defects, abnormalities in the esophagus, or congenital diaphragmatic hernia (a defect in the diaphragm, the muscle separating the chest cavity from the abdomen).

Of the 80 infants in the study, 58 were eating from their mother's breast before being discharged from the hospital because of a system called the Transition to Breast Pathway.

The step-wise system, led by NICU nurses, teach new mothers how to pump their breast milk, then how to best feed it to their very ill infants. In some cases, babies started out by being fed a few drops of breast milk on the end of a pacifier or cotton swab.

New moms also learned the benefits of skin-to-skin contact with their newborns, as it reduces stress for both mother and child, increases milk supply, and nurtures the all-important mother-infant bond.

"This CQI project demonstrates that even the most vulnerable infants can transition to at-breast feeds prior to discharge," said Spatz. "This pathway can be replicated in intensive-care nurseries throughout the world, allowing infants to achieve improved health outcomes, and their mothers to have the opportunity to follow the natural path of bonding that breastfeeding allows for."

The study appears in the July/September 2010 issue of the Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing.

Maybe someone should photocopy it and send it to the folks at the IRS.

On Monday, they announced nursing mothers were not allowed to use their tax-sheltered health care accounts to pay for breast-feeding supplies, like pumps and bottles, because breast-feeding "does not have enough health benefits to qualify as a form of medical care."

While nursing mothers weren't allowed a tax break on pumping supplies (which can run anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a year) under old regulations, it's amazing that, despite the ever-growing body of evidence proving the preventative care benefits of breast milk for babies, the IRS refuses to budge.

But fear not: people with allergies will be able to write off any expenses incurred from ripping out the grass in their yards and replacing it with artificial turf.

Because plastic grass has enough health benefits to qualify as a form for medical care.