baby in incubator having heartbeat checked by gloved nurse

How The Thoughtful Gift of Breast Milk Can Save Lives

They call it ‘liquid gold,’ and any mother who even occasionally pumps and stores her breast milk will tell you the nickname is apt—it’s a lot of work.

And it’s why the hundreds of moms who have donated milk to the preterm and medically fragile babies in NICUs across the area are called ‘heroes’ by one organization that collects the milk and distributes it to area hospitals.

“One ounce of milk can feed three premature infants or provide one infant three feedings,” Amy Trotter of Mother’s Milk Bank of North Texas says. “It actually does go a long way.”

“These donor moms are our heroes,” she adds. “They’re so generous.”

And the milk these mothers donate really is a labor of love. “We are a nonprofit,” Trotter says. “Mothers don’t receive any compensation for their milk. It’s purely for altruistic reasons.”

“Breast milk is species specific and for optimal outcomes, providing the milk of the same species is ideal,” Teri Wheat, a registered nurse and lactation consultant for Texas Health Southwest says, adding that in many cases, fragile babies can’t tolerate formula.

“It can actually cause more harm to the fragile newborn gut,” she says.

Studies are beginning to show a real benefit to feeding premature babies breast milk—avoiding an almost-always fatal complication called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). In fact, the NEC Society, a group of families, researchers and doctors who study NEC, pointed out that a recent American Academy of Pediatrics study recommended breast milk for premature babies as a way to possibly avoid the complication.

The milk is prescribed, Trotter says, by the baby’s doctor. The bank works with neonatologists and hospitals to supply milk. “We’d love to provide every baby in the area with breast milk if they need it, but we have to focus our donations on the babies who need it most—the medically needy babies,” she says. “We actually fill orders for hospitals. Neonatologists will order it by various calorie counts, depending on the baby’s needs. It’s sent out by prescription only.”

If there is a medical need, such as the mother being unable to provide her own breast milk for the infant, then donor milk is considered beneficial and would be utilized for the newborn, Wheat adds. “Ideally we want the mother to provide her breast milk, but when that is not possible the hospital does encourage the use of donor milk over formula due to the health benefits.”

A fair amount of education about the benefits of breast milk for fragile babies is sometimes needed, too, Wheat says. Even though wet nurses and donated milk have been commonplace in history (and are still common in some cultures), the “old” concept is still very new for many in the U.S.

“Many parents are unaware of the screening process and may have never heard of the ability to have human donor breast milk for a newborn,” she says. “As people become aware of the health benefits of breast milk and donor breast milk, it is becoming more accepted for patients to utilize in the hospital and after discharge.”

“A few people sometimes feel donor milk is not the right option for their newborn, and we respect every family’s right to make an informed decision.”

Trotter says that while it’s a little hard to precisely quantify how many infants donated milk from her organization helps each year, they estimate that about 6,000 hospitalized infants are fed breast milk from their bank each year—about 500 a month.

The initial donation is 100 ounces, she adds.

“The perfect mom for us is an overproducer,” Trotter says. “We don’t want a mom to give us milk their baby should need.”

Trotter says that some mothers produce a lot of milk, and are happy to pump, store and donate that extra supply. Some mothers find that their child (for various medical reasons) cannot drink the milk they’ve stored, and wish to donate it. Others are propelled by a feeling of gratitude after their children benefited from donor milk at some point.

“It is a personal choice for a mom to donate breast milk to the Mother’s Milk Bank of North Texas,” Wheat says. “We want to provide a mother with the information necessary to make an informed choice.

“We explain the screening process, and explain how their donation can make a difference for the health of a newborn,” she adds. “Many moms donate as a result of their newborn receiving donor milk while in the hospital.”

“We hear it all the time—‘I just wanted to give back.’”

Wheat says that if a mother has more questions about donation and how it works, they are referred directly to the milk bank and encouraged to call.

“We want them to decide what is best for their situation,” she says.

“When a mom is interested in becoming a donor, she’ll call in and talk to one of our donor coordinators,” Trotter explains. “We will conduct a phone interview to get a medical history, any medications, etc. Then we will ask for a letter from their doctor.”

A prospective donor will be sent a packet, and Trotter says, “We do require a blood test. We pay for that. And we also try to set it up for them at a location close to their home.”

The blood test checks for communicable diseases. “Once that blood test comes back clear, we give the mom a donor number,” she says.

But a blood test isn’t the only way the bank works to make sure the milk is safe. The bank also works with lactation consultants to educate moms about best practices if they wish to become milk donors.

“Another way we make sure the milk is safe is that we pasteurize it,” Trotter explained. The milk is logged into a sophisticated computer system that tracks each batch as it makes its way through processing.

“The milk is pasteurized through the Holder method,” she says. “It’s specific for human milk and keeps as many nutrients as possible, but still kills any bacteria and viruses like HIV, Ebola or Zika.”

And after the pasteurization process, each batch is tested again. “We also make sure every batch is bacteria-free before we send it out,” Trotter adds.

After a mom takes her donation to a drop-off location, a van picks up the donation and brings it back for processing. The bank will also pay for shipping and supplies, in case moms want to send their donations while they’re on vacation.

And chances are, there’s a donation drop-off location for Mother’s Milk Bank near you—the organization has 40 drop-off sites, including Texas Health Methodist, Texas Health Huguley Hospital, Texas Health Cleburne, Texas Health Southwest, Texas Health Plano and Texas Health Dallas.

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