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Photo: Mothers’ Milk Bank.

Breast Milk Donations Are in Increasing Demand

Milk banks provide powerful reserves for hospital NICU treatments, but they need help.

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Mothers’ Milk Bank (MMB), an Arvada-based nonprofit program of Rocky Mountain Children’s Health Foundation, is in need of human milk donations to support babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) across the country.

Rebecca Heinrich, director of MMB, points to a current rise in births—both happy news and a challenge for taxed hospitals, she says. Milk banks are working to gather milk, bottles, pasteurizers, and shipping materials so hospitals can worry about one less pandemic-related supply chain issue.

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COVID-19 infections have also exacerbated the need at banks: “Whether that’s because there’s an illness in the household or the mom herself is ill, babies who would normally have unfettered access to their mom’s own milk are struggling,” Heinrich says. “There are safe ways to breastfeed while going through COVID-19, and I would encourage people to look up guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, but (donated milk) is another safe option that, hopefully, is a balm for families that are going through difficult times.”

When a baby is born prematurely, a mother’s body may not yet be ready to produce milk. At that point, a doctor will make a decision: do we feed this baby formula, or donor milk? “We have seen more and more demand for pasteurized donor human milk from our hospital partners, with some NICUs prescribing it for over 95% of their patients,” Heinrich says.

Every ounce of milk donated feeds a micro-preemie baby in the NICU for a day, according to Heinrich, who is also a certified lactation counselor with a background in organ tissue and bone marrow transplants. Along with providing hundreds of vitamins and nutrients, donor human milk can help a preterm baby consume more of its own mother’s milk, the combination of which is much better than formula at reducing the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening intestinal disease.

Being a milk donor

Many contributors to MMB are parents with healthy babies who have too much milk and are excited to share; others have more complicated stories, such as those who donate after the loss of their own children—each experience is meaningful, says Heinrich.

For Arvada mother of two Mackenzie DeSimone, she became both a MMB beneficiary and benefactor in her birth story. While pregnant with her second daughter, she had issues with her kidneys, which turned into eclampsia and an emergency cesarean section. Her baby girl, born premature, went to the NICU for two weeks. Meanwhile, DeSimone’s body wasn’t ready to breastfeed, plus she had to get kidney surgery: “It was a really hard road to get my milk to come in.”

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Eventually, the milk did come—in abundance. Remembering the relief she felt having donor milk for her child, DeSimone signed up to give back to MMB. She ended up donating 600 ounces, four times the minimum amount.

“Pumping is not fun, I really struggled with it. You’re hooked up to a machine and you can’t really do much else, so it is emotional and time investment,” DeSimone says. However: “I had so much milk and I wanted to be able to donate it back, because we wouldn’t be where we are today in our breastfeeding journey if it weren’t for the donor milk that we had received. Having that weight lifted off of our shoulders, it was the light that got us through things.”

To be eligible as a human milk donor, one must agree to blood testing and lifestyle adjustments such as limited caffeine and vitamin supplement intake. This is for regulatory compliance and quality assurance.

“We stress that a medication or supplement that’s safe for your healthy baby at home may not be compatible with premature infants,” Heinrich says. “We want to make sure we know exactly what is in our milk so the doctors can safely prescribe it.”

Visit the Donate Milk page on the MMB website for more on donor eligibility requirements and to fill out an interest form.

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