The demand for breast milk is on the rise, local officials say, a testament to its benefits for infants and growing awareness of women’s ability to donate and procure human milk.
“We’ve seen the demand for human milk increasing,” says Naomi Bar-Yan, executive director of the Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast in Newton and incoming president of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). “Partly this is because we are getting the message out — especially to hospitals — and the research is so compelling about the benefits for preemies. This is life and death for them, and for other babies is huge for quality of life. Also I want women to know about this option. If a woman is not going to donate, I want it to be her choice, not because she didn’t know it was an option.”
Massachusetts has a long history of sharing human milk. The first milk bank was housed in Boston in the early 1900s in the Floating Hospital for Children and continued until the 1980s. Human milk banks collect, process, and provide milk to babies unrelated to the milk donor. A few years ago, the Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast (milkbankne.org) opened and serves all of New England and New York.
“The power of human milk is amazing,” Bar-Yan says. “It is a unique way moms can make a difference.”
“Breast milk benefits baby and mom,” notes Shelly Taft of Attleboro, LPN and international board certified lactation consultant.
“Most of the milk we provide from the Milk Bank is for babies in the NICU [Neonatal Intensive Care Unit],” Bar-Yan adds. “Others are fragile for some reason. A smaller number are full-term babies, but mom is not producing milk yet, and sometimes we provide milk for families at home where the baby might be a preemie or mom might have mastitis.”
“I belonged to an online community at BabyCenter and we got week-to-week updates on our pregnancy,” says Victoria Zacchelli of Milford, mom to a nearly 1-year-old daughter. “As time went on, a number of the other moms had preemie babies and I heard what a great benefit breast milk was to them. Later, others had huge struggles with breastfeeding. When I found that I had more milk than my daughter could use, I didn’t have the heart to throw it away.” After careful research and advice from her lactation consultant, Zacchelli decided to donate her excess milk.
Donors go through a rigorous screening that includes a multi-page health questionnaire, blood tests, and reports from their doctor and their child’s pediatrician. If a woman passes the screening tests, she is welcome to donate.
After donation, the milk itself goes through additional screenings. Human milk banks in the U.S. are under the guidance of HMBANA, which provides guidelines for donors and doctors to ensure a safe supply of human milk.
“I had a friend who lost a baby in the NICU and I know a number of other moms who had babies in the NICU or were stillborn,” says Heidi Zahra, mom of four from Haydenville. “After reading about how human milk can help protect babies from necrotic enterovirus, I wanted to donate.” Necrotic enteroviruses are viruses that can manifest as a cold in adults but can be devastating for babies — especially preemies — leading to infections around the heart. Human milk contains antibodies that can help babies fight such infections.
“I just had too much milk,” says Katie Gray, obstetrician and mom of two from Brookline. “I donated milk with my first child and am doing it again. I had too much milk and donating is the best use possible; it can do so much good for babies. Getting the milk to the milk bank had been my biggest challenge, and I am lucky to have my parents to help make the drive to Newton.”
“We have donation locations throughout Massachusetts from Plymouth to Northampton,” Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast’s Bar-Yan says. “We also have locations in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and Maine.” Screened and approved donors can also send their milk by mail to the main facility in Newton.
Getting the milk to a drop-off location as well as completing thorough health screenings are challenges for donors to overcome. “The minimum donation is high,” Taft notes. “So it isn’t for the mom who has a few extra ounces. I just worked with a mom whose baby is intolerant to dairy, so all the milk she pumped she can’t use. So donation is a good option.”
While there is no charge for the milk itself, the milk bank does charge for the processing. For babies in the NICU, insurance companies will generally cover the cost as it is usually prescribed by doctors. In the unlikely event that insurance doesn’t cover milk for a NICU baby, the milk bank has an assistance program to fulfill a medical need.
Other times, families contact the milk bank directly for a small amount, using it to feed an infant while waiting for the mother’s milk to come in. “They use it as a bridge, getting 10, 15 or 20 bottles. For them it is short-term supply,” Bar-Yan says “I love it when it comes full circle. Often times, these moms or our preemie moms come back to us three months later to donate back to us.”