When you run out of milk at home, a quick grocery run has you covered. When newborns need it, they have one place to turn: their moms. What happens when mothers’ milk is in short or nonexistent supply and formula isn’t an option? That’s when milk banks come in.
These banks collect breast milk from donors and process and distribute it to babies in need, like the 1 in 10 infants born prematurely in the U.S. each year. If a mother’s milk hasn’t come in yet, or if she’s unable to provide milk (at all or in sufficient quantity), donated milk provides myriad touted benefits and lessens the risk of infections (see sidebar). As with blood and plasma, the need for milk is greater than the supply. Luckily, Valley moms have been donating in droves.
The Milk Spot, a program within the Blossom Birth and Wellness Center, became the first breast milk donation and outreach center in Phoenix when it opened last August. According to staff, 23 donors have given an estimated 6,300 ounces of milk. Each is asked to give a minimum of 150 ounces, but Michelle Hottya, an international board-certified lactation consultant at The Milk Spot, says one “super pumper mom” donated more than 3,000 ounces, or almost 24 gallons.
Milk donated at the center is frozen and shipped overnight to Mother’s Milk Bank (MMB) in Colorado, the largest nonprofit milk bank in North America. Flagstaff and Tucson also have collection sites for the organization. Much of the milk then makes its way back to the Valley.
Currently, there are 18 milk banks in the country approved by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which serve 39 states in the U.S. More than 6,800 donor moms gave an estimated 3.7 million ounces of milk in the last year alone.
Barbie Schimke of Tempe started donating to The Milk Spot after her second daughter was born last year. As a nurse who takes care of postpartum moms at HonorHealth Shea, she knows how vital donations can be.
“I started pumping when I was on maternity leave,” Schimke says. “You really only need to be one whole day ahead to be away, and since I had more than that, I felt comfortable knowing there was enough to feed my baby and donate.” Schimke has donated 130 ounces of her milk so far, or about one gallon.
The donor screening process involves a phone assessment by a lactation consultant. Following that assessment, potential donors must give a blood sample that is tested for Hepatitis B and C, HIV and syphilis. Donor moms can be any age, and can donate milk up until their babies are 18 months old. “Since a mother’s milk changes over time to provide for the growing needs of her baby, this guideline serves to fulfill the nutrient balance needs of the babies who receive this donor milk,” Hottya says. MMB is willing to consider donations that don’t meet this guideline on a case-by-case basis. Donor moms are asked to refrain from tobacco and illicit drug use, for obvious reasons. While they are not continually tested for these substances, each donation of milk is tested.
“MMB tests it, pasteurizes it and repackages it to deliver to hospitals,” Hottya says. The pasteurization process is called the Holder Method, where milk is heated to 144.5 degrees Fahrenheit and held there for 30 minutes, eliminating any bacteria. It’s considered the standard for human and cow’s milk. After that, “most of [the donor milk] goes to babies in the NICU and critical care units – babies born prematurely [or who are] unable to digest formula, or for heart patients,” Hottya says.
Many donor moms have been through an unimaginable loss, Hottya says. “These moms, who have been caring for a sick baby or had an unexpected loss at birth – their milk is going to be there whether or not their baby is nursing,” she says. “It’s another difficult point in their grieving.”
Their selfless decision to donate to other babies “gives them a connection,” Hottya says. “They’ve done something helpful and productive, despite their grief... Sometimes, their own sick baby received donated milk while in the hospital, and this is another way to carry on the legacy.”
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