Human milk and babies are a good match – and for very low birth weight infants, human milk can be life saving. When a mother can’t produce enough, or any, milk for such a preemie, donor human milk banks answer the call.
Many pregnant women expect to breastfeed, and research makes clear that breastfeeding benefits both infant and mother. For babies, breast milk reduces food allergies, rates of upper and lower respiratory infections and feeding intolerance, increases IQ, and yields other long- term benefits. Breastfeeding women lose weight, bond with baby, and enjoy reduced rates of diabetes, obesity, and ovarian and breast cancer.
For mothers of severely low birth weight (VLBW) infants (3.3 pounds or less), breastfeeding is challenging – and sometimes impossible. First, these preemies remain in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) long after their mothers are typically discharged, and most cannot directly breastfeed for some time because they are too small and fragile. While some mothers can express, store, and provide breast milk for feeding, many face significant medical and emotional barriers. Yet for VLBW infants, formula is not an appropriate substitute; availability of breast milk can reduce infections and necrotizing enterocolitis, accelerate optimum growth and development, and, literally, be the difference between life and death.
That’s where milk banking enters the picture. Since 1985, contemporary, non-profit milk banks have been accepting donations from healthy lactating mothers, heat-processing their carefully expressed breast milk, and dispensing safe donor human milk. More than 80% of the milk is dispensed to NICUs, with the remainder dispensed, upon prescription, to outpatients. The Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin (milkbank.org), in operation since 1999, has dispensed nearly three million ounces of pasteurized milk to more than 100 hospitals in 21 states. MMBA is one of thirteen non-profit milk banks operating under standards set by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA).
More milk donations are needed – in most months the HMBANA banks cannot meet demand. Too few lactating mothers are aware of milk banking and of the magnificent gift they can provide to needy infants. For example a mother who pumps 3 ounces per day more than her own two-month-old baby needs can feed sixty-three VLBW infants weekly.
Signing up to be a milk donor is a simple process. First the milk bank interviews prospective donors by phone, screening out those with lifestyle or medical history risk factors. Those who pass the initial screening complete a questionnaire and have blood tested at milk bank expense. Once approved, donors drop off their frozen milk at a milk bank or a nearby collection depot, or ship their milk to the bank on dry ice.
Milk banks then process the donor milk following stringent standards. In particular the milk is pasteurized to eliminate bacteria and viruses, which can be harmless to full-term infants but potentially harmful to VLBW preemies. Milk is then refrozen and dispensed locally by courier or shipped by air.
August 1st launches a week set aside internationally to raise awareness of breastfeeding and its health benefits. This year’s theme, “Breastfeeding Support: Close to Mothers,” highlights the role of community lactation support to promote successful breastfeeding. Milk banks all over the continent are celebrating breastfeeding throughout the month of August. Contact the nearest milk bank and discover how to gather with breastfeeding parents and kids to celebrate the healing powers of milk.
The Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin seeks 400 more milk donors for 2013 in order to meet demand for donor milk. Can you help? Spread the word, and call or email today to be screened.
Kim Updegrove, CNM, MSN, MPH is Executive Director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin, and President of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. A Certified Nurse Midwife and former faculty member in the Schools of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University, Kim holds Master’s degrees in both Nursing and Public Health. You can reach her via email or phone, 1-877-813-6455 (toll free) or (512) 494-0800.