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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.

About Donors

Women are not paid for donating to milk banks; their motivation is purely altruistic. "They know they're helping babies. For a lot of women who donate, it's kind of a spiritual thing. They feel a connection to moms who can't breastfeed," Flatau tells WebMD.

So far, supply has never been a problem. "I get at least 10 emails a day, and five to 10 phone calls, from people wanting to donate," More says.

The amount of milk donors supply varies. Milk banks require that donors provide a minimum of 100 ounces to 200 ounces over three months or less. Some women far exceed that requirement, donating up to 10,000 ounces, Flatau notes.

A willingness to donate a minimum amount of milk is not the only requirement. Donors, and their own infants, must be healthy. "Donors must be free of illness and have babies that are thriving," says Tully. "We never want to be taking milk from a baby who's not healthy," she tells WebMD.

How Safe Is It?

Parents of prospective recipients may wonder about the safety of human milk extracted from strangers and shipped to and from all over North America.

According to experts, they needn't worry.

"In the whole history of milk banks, there's never been a single reported adverse effect," More says.

Tully concurs. "The safety record of milk banks is pretty remarkable, compared to other health care procedures," she tells WebMD. "We know we have to be careful. We have small recipients."

Industry experts attribute the stellar safety record of milk banks associated with the banking association to rigorous screening and processing procedures.

Screening Process

The multistep screening process applies both to prospective donors and to their milk.

The screening process for prospective donors goes something like this: They receive testing for a battery of communicable diseases, including HIV; and they undergo testing multiple times. "We screen the donors thoroughly every six months," More tells WebMD. Lifestyle and medical records of candidates are also reviewed. Finally, both their primary care physician and pediatrician must sign a statement vouching for their viability as donors.

Once donors are approved, the same scrutiny is applied to their milk. At association-affiliated milk banks, a pasteurization process eliminates bacteria while retaining many of the milk's nutritious components. Plus, lab workers test samples for bacterial growth. Finally, the milk is sealed in 4-ounce glass bottles and delivered, frozen, to the nearest milk bank.

Cost

While the scrupulous screening done by milk banks has prevented problems related to the safety of the breast milk they supply, cost remains a prohibitive factor for some would-be recipients.

At around $3 per ounce, breast milk can quickly get expensive.

Some milk banks award grants to offset the cost to parents, but such grants fall far short of covering the total cost of breast milk for all recipients.

"I have had no success in getting insurance coverage for recipients. Your heart breaks for those who need it and can't afford it," More tells WebMD.

She and others hope that as science continues to build up evidence of breast milk's specific and significant health benefits, an increasing number of insurance companies will see it as a necessary medical expense rather than an optional mode of nutritionnutrition and, in turn, cover its cost.

For some, breast milk is more than sound nutrition. With the most vulnerable babies, it can be critical to their survival. "There's nothing else they're going to tolerate. It can be a lifesaver," Flatau says.

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