Milk Banks and Donor Moms Save Lives

premature baby boyI recently got to tour the Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast. What an inspiring field trip for someone who is fascinated by all things lactation! I watched donor milk being pasteurized, toured the freezers, and learned about the bank's operations. It was awesome to see so much human milk at once!

The American Academy of Pediatricians and the World Health Organization recommend human milk for all babies. The first choice, of course, is that a baby receives milk from his or her mother. If that is impossible, the second best option is donor milk. Non-profit Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) banks, like the one I toured, screen potential donors, pasteurize donor milk, and provide it by prescription to fragile babies in need. Last year Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast dispensed 202,914 ounces of milk from nearly 500 donors. Much of that milk went to feed premies, who average a quarter of an ounce per meal.

Donated milk makes a dramatic difference for fragile babies. While ten to seventeen percent of preterm babies who get formula develop necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a potentially fatal condition, only 1.5% of premies fed human milk develop it. The cost of caring for infants with NEC is .6 billion annually.

“Donor milk saves the lives of some of our most fragile babies.” Morgan Henderson, one of three donor intake coordinators at Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast, told me. “Donating milk is not difficult. Milk processed by HMBANA milk banks is safe for fragile babies because donors are carefully screened, and the donated milk is processed and tested before being distributed.” Some common reasons babies receive donor milk is preterm birth, failure to thrive, malabsorption syndromes, allergies, feeding/formula intolerance, immunologic deficiencies, pre- or post-operative nutrition, and infectious diseases.

“I strongly encourage my friends who find themselves with surplus milk to consider donating to the milk bank,” Mira Whiting shared with me. She’s the mother of two young boys. Since she was lucky enough to have an oversupply, she wanted to share with other moms who were struggling to make enough milk. She initially donated informally, fearing that the donor application and screening process with a milk bank would be arduous. But she says “the hassle I was so worried about when I thought about donating was a total non-issue. I called the milk bank and had a fairly short conversation with one of the donor intake coordinators. She ran through a series of questions to determine if I qualified to be a donor. Then she mailed me a blood sample kit, which I just took to my midwife's office. When I realized how easy it actually was, I was kind of kicking myself for not doing it the first time around.“ Mira donated 190 ounces to the bank.

“While it was very satisfying with the informal route to give to a baby I knew and would get to watch grow up,” Mira said. “I also felt really strongly that I wanted my milk to help the babies who didn't have someone in their personal circle who could do that for them. I saw the science, particularly on what a HUGE difference human milk can make for babies who are very premature and medically fragile. I felt the only way I could help to give back/pay it forward this huge gift mother nature had given me in the form of my abundant milk supply was to donate to those babies.“

Some NICUs, such as the one at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, provide donor milk to all babies whose mothers can’t provide them with enough of their milk. Other times, parents of fragile babies get a prescription and contact their nearest milk bank themselves. To donate extra milk or to receive milk for a baby in need, contact your closest milk bank.