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 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.
The health care system volunteers its time and facilities to accept and store donations in its Milk Depot, and since 2016, women have donated well over 30,000 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.
Regional One Health volunteers time and space to serve as a Milk Depot. Milk is collected and stored in the Depot, then sent to the Milk Bank of Austin for pasteurization and distribution.
While fragile neonates benefit greatly from breastmilk, their mothers are often not able to nurse due to complications. That’s where donors step in.
The majority of donated milk goes to hospitalized babies, including infants in Regional One Health’s NICU. 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.
It’s easy to get involved.
Any breastfeeding mother with a baby under age 1 can apply to donate. Donors undergo a free, easy screening process via the Milk Bank to get a donor number. Then, they just call Regional One Health’s Milk Depot team to arrange to drop off their milk.
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 Regional One Health to donate.
As donations come in to the Milk Depot, they are stored in a freezer that is checked daily for temperature and safe storage. Once enough milk is accumulated, the team packages it with dry ice and sends it out for processing and pasteurization. Currently, the Mother’s Milk Bank of Tennessee partners with the Mother’s Milk Bank of Austin to process milk for Tennessee mothers until Tennessee has its own processing facilities.
For fragile infants in the NICU, breastmilk is treated like medicine. It not only nourishes tiny premature babies, it protects them from serious conditions.
And it all starts with women like Guy who want to help moms and babies.
The community of breastmilk 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.
“Everything changes when you have your first baby,” Guy said. “Every baby you see, you see your own child in them. 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.”