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Rhode Mariano’s son Kade was born five weeks early with a hearty appetite. Suffering from gestational diabetes, Mariano’s milk supply was not coming in, and she was concerned about how she would feed her premature, jaundiced son. Soon after, a lactation consultant paid her a visit and offered her another mother’s breast milk.
“I had heard of breast milk banks but didn’t know much about them,” says Mariano. “My husband and I were all for it, along with my mother and aunt, but the rest of the family wasn’t sure what I was doing, and I could tell they were uncomfortable.”
Baby Kade was given a week’s supply of donated breast milk in the hospital and sent home with another week’s supply at which time Mariano’s milk supply came in and she was able to breastfeed on her own.
What is a Milk Bank?
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America defines donor milk banks as, “A service established for the purpose of collecting, screening, processing and distributing donated human milk to meet the specific medical needs of individuals for whom it is prescribed.”
Milk banks such as Healthone Alliance Mothers’ Milk Bank in Denver, Colo., which opened in May 1984, receive and dispense about 100,000 ounces of milk every year. “The total amount of milk all the banks distributed last year was 568,000 ounces,” says Larry Jonson, the alliance’s director. “Milk banking is growing in the United States, as more research shows the benefits of human milk. Where Mom’s own milk is not available, donor human milk is first choice.”
Benefits of Using Donor Milk
“The biggest benefit to donor milk is that it’s the closest thing to Mom’s own milk, which is the gold standard for infant feeding,” says Jonson. “It is species-specific, which means it is made for human beings by human beings [and] contains immune properties, hormones, growth factors and much more.”
According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, human milk contains growth factors that can protect immature tissue, promote maturation and promote healing of damaged tissue. The unique composition of human milk includes nutrients, enzymes, growth factors, hormones and immunological and anti-inflammatory properties that have not been duplicated. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months is recommended with introduction of complementary, nutritionally adequate foods at about this time.
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Do You Need Donor Milk?
Donated breast milk is most often given through a doctor’s order or prescription where there is a medical reason and a mother is unable to provide milk to her baby. Premature, at-risk and ill infants tend to get first priority.
“The most common recipient is the premature infant in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit],” says Kate Wheler, program administrator for Clarion Women’s Services in Indianapolis, Ind. “The exception to this is that we feel it’s important to get a baby off to a good start in life. So when we have lots of milk we help babies who have been adopted or are in need of foster care.”
Just as there are numerous reasons a baby would require donated milk, there are many factors that make it difficult or impossible for mothers to feed their babies with their own milk. “Mothers who have untreated active tuberculosis or are human T-cell lymphotropic virus positive, mothers receiving diagnostic or therapeutic radioactive isotopes or who have had exposure to radioactive materials, mothers who are receiving chemotherapy or are using ‘street drugs’ or mothers in the U.S. who are HIV positive are all mothers who may seek out milk banks,” says Wheler.
Although there are no costs to the donating mother, receiving mothers or the hospitals that are caring for them are charged a fee for processing and shipping. Fees can vary and range from $3.25 to $3.50 an ounce. Recipients also should consult their insurance companies and state Medicaid programs, as some of them will pay fees when a medical necessity for donated milk has been identified.
Are There Risks with Donated Breast Milk?
“Recipient families can feel very confident in the screening process because there has never been an incident of disease transmission from donor milk to a recipient in the history of donor milk banking or a negative outcome of any kind,” says Borman. Donor milk is processed through a series of steps that involves scrubbing, pouring, mixing, filling, pasteurizing, lab testing and ultimately freezing and storing. The pasteurization step kills bacteria and viruses.
Should You Donate Your Breast Milk?
In order to become donors, women must go through a screening process that includes a telephone interview. Donors must be in good health, take a blood test, be non-smokers, not consume alcohol within a certain period, not take any regular medication or herbs and be willing to donate at least 100 ounces of milk.
“All moms need to feed their own babies first,” says Jonson. “Our donors tend to have large amounts of milk available and want to share it with mothers who do not.”
Ursula Nicolle, a breast milk donor from San Francisco, has been donating for four months, for a total of 500 ounces. She says it hasn’t been difficult to do and finds relief in knowing that her milk is not going to waste. “I’m thankful to have found an organization where my milk can be put to good use and can offer some security to other parents who are often in stressful situations.”
For some women, donating may not be appropriate, explains Wheler, and these reasons can include: not being able to produce more milk than her own infant needs, finding the time needed to pump, store and transport milk for another infant and the limited amount of time that women have to donate milk – during the first year after the birth of a baby.
There are new breast milk banks will open this year in the United States, bringing the total in North America to 23. The United States trails Europe, where breast milk banks are more prevalent with cities such as London having 17 banks and countries such as Brazil boasting more than 200 banks.
Our articles are prepared to give advice. You should consult your doctor for exact information.