For hospitalized infants, breastmilk is more than nutrition – it can be lifesaving medicine.
Regional One Health’s Milk Depot helps provide breastmilk for these vulnerable babies by making it easy for moms to donate their excess milk.
Donors simply undergo a screening process through the Milk Bank of Austin, and then contact the Milk Depot to drop off their donations. Donations benefit NICUs across the country.
As a first-time mom, Paige Guy wasn’t sure what to expect when her son was born.
What she did know is she’d do anything to keep him healthy, even if it meant organizing her life around pumping to ensure she had plenty of breastmilk in reserve.
It’s a challenge she admits felt lonely at times.
“Becoming a parent can feel isolating, and breastfeeding can compound that – your whole life revolves around making enough milk to make sure your baby is happy, fed and meeting all their milestones,” she said. “At the same time, I knew I was lucky because my son was born full-term and healthy, so that was the only worry I had.”
As Guy realized her freezer held more than enough milk for her son, she was inspired to help babies who weren’t blessed with good health: “I can only imagine how hard it is to have a baby in the NICU. If I could alleviate stress for other moms, I wanted to do my part.”
Her OB/GYN suggested she contact the Milk Bank of Austin to donate her excess milk, and Guy was happy to learn there was a donation site right in Memphis at Regional One Health.
Lauren Russell, Nurse Coordinator, said the health care system volunteers its time and facilities to accept and store donations in its Milk Depot, and since 2016, 48 women have donated 31,298 ounces. That supports a national network of 24 nonprofit milk banks that dispense 6.2 million ounces of lifesaving breastmilk every year.
It helps meet a huge demand for donor milk: with one in eight babies born prematurely, over 9 million ounces a year are needed.
While fragile neonates benefit greatly from breastmilk, their mothers are often not able to nurse due to complications. That’s where women Russell praises as “donor warriors” step in.
“The majority goes to hospitalized babies,” she said, including infants in Regional One Health’s NICU. “Typically, the babies that receive this milk are the tiniest. Breastmilk is nature’s way of providing supreme nutrition, but it’s more than that – we treat breastmilk like medicine.”
Breastmilk protects against diseases that impact preterm babies, like Necrotizing Enterocolitis, a dangerous intestinal disease; and Retinopathy of Prematurity, which damages the eyes.
With preterm babies starting at as little as 1 milliliter – a quarter of a medicine dropper – of milk per feeding, one donor can literally provide thousands of feedings.
And it’s easy to get involved, Russell said.
Any breastfeeding mother with a baby under age 1 can apply to donate. “Once your baby is past 1 your milk changes and gets less calorie dense, because your baby is eating solid food,” Russell explained. “We target the mothers who have the nutrient-rich milk for the babies.”
Donors undergo a free, easy screening process via the Milk Bank to get a donor number. Then, they just call Russell’s team to arrange to drop off their milk. During COVID-19, “We exchange milk through the car window in the circular drive outside the Rout Center,” Russell said. “It’s convenient and safe for everyone involved.”
In Guy’s experience, the entire process works smoothly. After a prescreening, she provided OB/GYN and pediatrician records, a blood sample and list of medications. Once she was cleared, the Milk Bank put her in touch with Russell to donate.
As donations come in to the Milk Depot, they are stored in a freezer that Russell’s team checks daily for temperature and safe storage. Once they have enough milk, they package it with dry ice and send it to the Milk Bank of Austin for processing.
“The milk is pasteurized, so it’s safe just like when you buy milk at the grocery store,” Russell said. “It’s a closely monitored process. We realize we’re dealing with a vulnerable population.”
Russell is grateful for women like Guy who make it possible to help moms and babies. Her community of donors includes women who overproduce, women whose babies have stopped breastfeeding, and even bereaved mothers who continue to pump.
The similarity between all these women is simple: they are moms who want to help other moms. “They look at it as mom-to-mom, woman-to-woman support,” Russell said. “It’s a reflection on their hearts that they want to serve other mothers and preterm babies.”
Guy agrees. “Everything changes when you have your first baby. Every baby you see, you see your own child in them,” she said. “I know if my son were sick, I would want every resource available and I would do anything I could to help him get better.”
Guy has already recommended the Milk Bank of Austin to her sister-in-law, who is expecting, and Russell hopes more women will consider getting involved.
“Across the country, there is a need for 1,800 breastfeeding women to become donors in 2020,” she said. “We have so many babies with a medical need for milk, and you can be a lifesaving branch. There’s just such honor and graciousness in giving of your time and energy in this way.”