You have likely heard of donating blood or even organ donation — but what about milk?
Believe it or not, breast milk is one of those commodities that can be donated, and it can make a world of a difference to a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or even a baby whose mom is struggling to build up her milk supply after a C-section.
“Normally people don’t know milk banks exist unless they know someone who has benefited from it,” said Montana Wagner-Gillespie, international board certified lactation consultant and milk bank coordinator at WakeMed Mothers’ Milk Bank.
North Carolina is home to one of only 22 nonprofit milk banks in the country, a relatively low number considering how many babies could benefit from the donated milk. The WakeMed Mothers’ Milk Bank is located in Cary and serves every NICU in the state that uses breast milk, in addition to several hospitals along the coast, supplying approximately 16,000 ounces of pasteurized breast milk per month.
Milk is dispensed with priority to need, starting with NICUs in the area, in North Carolina, and finally, in the region. After that, the milk goes to those needing outpatient supply with a prescription, such as families who are needing the milk due to low supply, taking certain medications, or in other cases like adoption.
The milk, while donated, comes at a high cost. Each ounce costs $5 to produce between processing, pasteurizing and distributing. Unfortunately, in North Carolina neither insurance nor Medicaid covers that cost, so it is all paid for out-of-pocket by the recipients. The milk comes in 1-, 3- and 7-ounce bottles, which represents just one of the many feedings per day, depending on the size and needs of the baby.
Currently, there are about 150 donors and at a given time 50 to 75 percent of active donors are from North Carolina. Beyond that, mothers often seek out the milk bank to donate where they or someone they know previously received milk from as a way to give back. The milk bank works to make sure the mothers only donate their milk, therefore paying for the coolers, shipping and storage bags for the donations.
When mothers decide to donate their milk they must first complete the process, which includes a prescreening call, paperwork completed by the doctor and pediatrician, and blood work. From there, mothers can donate frozen milk just once or as often as they would like. Once the milk bank receives the donation, it is sorted by date, pasteurized, homogenized, tested and refrozen in a highly controlled and monitored environment.
Amanda Davidson of Raleigh has been donating milk for the past six months. When her son, who is now 9 months old, was first born he spent three days in the NICU. She later learned about the milk bank through a breastfeeding support group. Now, she is able to pump much more than her son needs, so she donates the rest. She plans to continue donating as long as she is breastfeeding, saying, “It’s so important in those early days to provide for babies in the intensive care unit or providing for babies in general.”
Sometimes, bereaved mothers will pump as a way to honor their lost child, a healing act for some. Or, at times, they have pumped while their child was in the NICU and then donate the frozen milk if their baby is unable to use it.
“That’s a really powerful thing you’ve been a part of,” said Wagner-Gillespie. While the majority of donors are mothers of healthy babies, she takes special care of those who are donating following loss by telling mothers the impact of the ounces of milk they donated.
Wagner-Gillespie shared a set of photos she recently received from a mother whose child received breast milk as a preemie — with before and after photos as the child is now a thriving two-year-old boy. Each year there are more than 10,000 babies born prematurely in North Carolina and the donated breast milk can be particularly powerful for preemies with their health and recovery. None of it would be possible though without the willingness of breastfeeding mothers to donate.