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Milk Banks Supply Needed Breast Milk

Experts say the donated milk can be a life-saving -- if costly -- boost for fragile babies.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Because of its perfect balance of nutrients, immune-boosting properties, and easy digestibility breast milk provides optimal food for infant growth and development. While not all new moms are able to breastfeed now there may be a new option.

Milk banks provide human breast milk to the neediest babies who otherwise wouldn't get this nutritional and developmental boost.

Who Benefits From Milk Banks?

Premature infants weighing less than 1,500 grams (about 3 pounds, 5 ounces) at birth receive the bulk of the milk from human milk banks, explains Nancy Wight, MD, neonatologist, and professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego. Babies who reject formula and, as a result, experience inadequate growth, are also prime candidates for milk banks.

Neonatologists prescribe breast milk for these infants because of the specific advantages it offers. Breast milk protects against necrotizing enterocolitis, an intestinal disease to which premature infants are susceptible. "It gives these babies three to four times more protection. To me, that's a big seller," says Donna More, administrator of Delaware-based Christiana Care Health system's milk bank, in operation since 1947.

Premature babies fed breast milk have shorter stays in neonatal intensive care units than those who consume formula -- about 15 days on average -- and are less likely to develop retinopathy (retina problems that can lead to poor vision), notes Mary Rose Tully, director of Lactation Services at University of North Carolina Hospital and past president of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, an organization established in 1985 to promote and support safe donor milk banking.

"Overall, babies do better on breast milk," More says emphatically.

Not Regulated by the FDA

The milk banking association, with assistance from an advisory council comprised primarily of physicians, oversees the collection, processing, and distribution of most human milk banks in North America. Because of the association's small output relative to other food sources, it is not regulated by the FDA. However, its original processing guidelines were compiled with direct input from the FDA and CDC.

The FDA continues to play an active, though unofficial, role in overseeing milk banks affiliated with the milk banking association. "The FDA has been closely monitoring what donor milk banks are doing. They make surprise visits and take copious notes," Tully tells WebMD.

Currently, the association operates milk banks in each of the following states: California, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas, as well as Canada. Some of its banks are affiliated with hospitals; others are community-based. Recently, Prolacta Bioscience opened North America's first for-profit human milk processing facility, in California.

Recipients do not need to reside near a milk bank to benefit from the pasteurized milk it supplies. "All but one location has milk shipped in and out," Tully explains.

"I ship all over the U.S. I've even sent milk overseas," adds Gretchen Flatau, executive director of Mother's Milk Bank in Austin. Because it is perishable, the milk is shipped on ice and overnighted, Flatau explains. Most of the milk shipped from milk banks around the country finds its ways to hospital neonatal intensive care units, where vulnerable infants stand to gain the most from human milk.

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