By Sean Powers/Illinois Public Media — Many lactation experts say newborns can get their nutrition needs met through formula, but that breast milk is preferred because of the additional health benefits. When mothers can’t produce enough breast milk for their baby or can’t use their breast milk due to medical reasons, donated milk is available — but not enough of it, due to a nationwide shortage of pasteurized breast milk.
To combat the shortage, breast milk banks across the country are trying to open more drop off sites to collect donated breast milk, including a site opening soon in Champaign.
Beth McKinney has been operating a breast milk bank of sorts in her own freezer. It has only been a few months since McKinney, 26, of Champaign gave birth to her son, Charlie, and she says she produces just enough milk for her son when she’s breastfeeding. But that doesn’t leave enough breast milk to store in a bottle for those times when she’s not around. So, she’s gotten extra milk from family, people she knows and trusts.
At the moment, her freezer contains a bag of frozen breast milk from her sister-n-law.
“I just have one bag right now actually,” McKinney explained. “So, I need to get restocked up, but it’s got the date, and how much is in it, and the time it was pumped.”
McKinney has made space in her freezer for her own tiny milk bank, next to the ice cream and frozen peas and carrots.
Other milk banks operate on a much larger scale. One of them is the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank in Indianapolis. It offers pasteurized breast milk to mothers who need it. The milk bank’s Carissa Hawkins said the facility operates like a blood bank. Donors are screened for communicable diseases, tobacco use, lifestyle choices and certain medications.
“We need to keep the milk that we provide to hospitals as a medicine for really ill babies as pure and as clean as possible,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins explained that nearly all of the milk at the bank goes to hospitals across the country, including ones in Illinois. Premature and ill children are given priority.
She said insurance companies typically cover breast milk for hospital patients, but outpatients usually have to pay for it themselves. The processing fee for milk at the Indiana bank is $4.50 an ounce, which can add up in a bottle holding eight ounces. Hawkins said the milk bank helps families with medical and financial needs cover the cost of donor milk.
“Our milk supply is never guaranteed because just as a mom’s milk supply is never guaranteed,” she stated. “We can never know whether or not a hospital census is going to go up, and they’re going to need 60 bottles or its going to be low and they need 10. One week you can see that our freezers are full, the next week they’re absolutely empty and we have orders we can’t fill.”
That is something local health agencies are thinking about.
“The price of getting donated milk is very expensive, and it’s all completely related to supply and demand,” said Heather Ludwig, a nutritionist and lactation consultant with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. “There’s a huge demand. There’s not a lot of supply. It’s expensive to do this process. So, if we can get more available, it also is going to mean that there’s more available for moms.”
Soon, the CUPHD will be operating a breast milk drop-off site, where mothers in the Champaign-Urbana area may make donations. It will be one of more than 35 milk depots that the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank expects to open in several states by the end of the year.
The milk of screened donors will be stored in a freezer at the Public Health District offices in Champaign, and then shipped to the milk bank two hours away. Ludwig said this will be the first milk depot in central Illinois, and the third in the state.
“We know women who are breastfeeding, a lot of times they feel like they have milk and they would donate, but it’s incredibly inconvenient to be able to store up enough milk to ship it (to the milk bank), and then to find the dry ice,” she exclaimed. “A lot of women, I think, would be more likely to do donation if we could streamline the process and make it easier and also make it more apparent. A lot of people didn’t even realize that this existed.”
Breast milk banks are not a new thing. According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, the first ones opened in the early 20th century, thanks to refrigeration units and more knowledge about processing food safely. Kim Updegrove is the association’s executive director.
“Milk banks were actually quite common up until the early 1980’s when HIV and AIDS was identified,” Updegrove said. “Most of those milk banks closed, and it’s only been since the late 1980’s when we worked out how to keep the milk safe that we have seen a proliferation of milk banks.”
A recent meeting of a breastfeeding support group at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District attracted a small group of new mothers, along with with their kids. Kim Ankrom, 30, of Urbana said she’s looking forward to donating to the milk depot. Ankrom has about 50 ounces of milk saved, mainly because her son Benjamin refuses to use a bottle.
“Even when I have to throw some out because maybe Dad got some out of the freezer, and then he didn’t drink it and I have to throw to it out,” Ankrom said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s liquid gold going down the drain because you didn’t want it.’ I always tell him that not every baby gets breast milk. You should consider yourself lucky, and you just don’t drink it out of the bottle.”
Another mother who recognizes the value of donated breast milk is Angie Girton, 28, of Chicago. She and her husband have a son who’s almost two years old, and in March she gave birth to a second child – a boy named Aavyn.
“He definitely had quite a bit of blonde, wavy hair, which is exactly what his brother had when he was born as well,” Girton recalled. “So, his perfect little feet and his little hands, and he was just, he was absolutely beautiful.”
Less than an hour after he was born, Aavyn died from complications that began during the pregnancy.
“All I could do was smile that I was given the opportunity to hold him alive,” Girton said with a heavy sigh.
Girton continues to pump breast milk that would have gone to Aavyn. She ships it to the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank using dry ice.
The milk bank has a wall with engraved names and birth dates of decreased children in whose memory milk was donated.
Girton admits that pumping milk is a reminder of the child she lost.
“It’s easy to want yourself to forget because it hurts,” Girton explained. “But at the same time being able to produce milk, knowing that I can take that milk and then in turn bless another mommy, bless her child with something that was meant to bless my son, it kind of makes it feel a little less painful.”
Girton said it is worth it to help a child in need.
The milk depot in Champaign opens June 20, 2014.