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Pump it Up: A Look at Breast Milk Donation

mom and babyWorld Breastfeeding Week: August 1-7, 2012

You might not know it if you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, but breast milk donation is an integral part of keeping premature babies alive.

So why is there such a lack of information, and what else can we learn about this life-saving practice? The movement is out there… and it’s gaining steam.

Human Milk Donation Organizations

While human milk banking might not be the most common book club gossip or water cooler talk, it’s a practice that is aimed towards the protection and care of premature babies; and it’s trying to mainstream. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America, or HMBANA, was founded in 1985 to help support the process and guidelines of donating. They describe their mission on their website, hmbana.org, writing that they are “a multidisciplinary group of health care providers that promotes, protects, and supports donor milk banking.”  And as the only professional membership association for milk banks in Canada, Mexico and the United States, they set the standards.

Naomi Bar-Yam, PhD and Executive Director of Mothers’ Milk Bank of New England, believes strongly in the cause, and in what donor milk can do for premature babies.

“Their whole systems; their GI systems to their immune systems are all premature,” she said, “Not only does the human milk give them the nutrition that they need, but also the immunological protection.”

Bar-Yam described the ecological process of our own natural milk that has been developing in the human system for thousands of years, pointing out the risk of using a “manufactured” version of cow’s milk in our most fragile NICU patients.

Kevin West, Co-Producer of Donor Milk, a documentary about the journey of milk donation after personal tragedy, agrees that milk banks are doing extremely important work.

“Without the milk banks in the United States, there would be no supply of pasteurized milk for the most critically-ill infants in our nation,” West wrote. “Our babies would be forced to gain nutrition from less natural products like sugar water. Milk banks are mission critical to a future of more healthy babies.”

And the donation banks don’t stop with storage and access to milk; they also make sure it’s safe.

Guidelines and Safety Measures

Jarred King, Producer/Director at Swagger Films and Co-Producer of Donor Milk, has seen first hand all of the work that is put into every donation. “The milk banks are also testing the milk, which provides quality control, another extremely important element in the supply chain,” wrote King.

Bar-Yam added that their screening process is modeled after donating blood, striving to make sure that no harm can come from the new milk. That means for each new donor there’s a phone screen, a look at medical information, an additional packet with a second level of questions, and a final conference with both the doctor of the mother and her own child’s pediatrician. Bar-Yam is quick to point out, “It’s not just pumping and sending it in.”

These guidelines are necessary, but could be hurting the overall volume of donation milk in the United States. Unfortunately, we’ve become a country that requires a certain level of ease to try something new. Which is putting us behind other cultures around the world.

West, talking about a study on the need for donor milk done in 2009 by Dr. Sonny Ravera, said “It was determined that approximately 8 million ounces of milk are needed to feed infants in the NICU. In 2011 the HMBANA milk banks processed just over 2 million ounces.” Currently, for our population of about 200 million people, we have 10 active milk banks in North America, with four in development. Brazil, in comparison, has just 200 million people and over 300 milk banks.

And maybe because of the process, some women have shied away from using donor banks to provide sustenance for a child in need. Maybe that’s why some mothers are privately sharing via their friends or Internet connections, rather than a more trusted and regulated source. Maybe that could explain the shortage.

Because it seems that with a recent increase in demand for human breast milk, there is a rift between supply and demand.

**Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where we look into the hospital’s role, as well as some touching personal reasons for donation

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Cited Sources

"Mission/Description." HMBANA. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 July 2012. <https://www.hmbana.org/missiondescription>.

"About Us." Mothers' Milk Bank of New England. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 July 2012. <http://www.milkbankne.org/aboutus.shtml>.

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