'Breast Milk Banks' Gain in Popularity
Experts say they're safer than online milk-sharing sources
The idea of breast milk banking is not a new one. Back in the early 1980s, a network of 30 milk banks stretched across the United States, with another 20 in Canada.
But the HIV/AIDS health crisis of the 1980s, along with a surge in hepatitis cases, led to the shuttering of nearly all the breast milk banks, Updegrove said. At the lowest point, only one breast milk bank -- in San Jose, Calif. -- remained open.
Breast milk banks began to reestablish themselves in North America as the value of human milk for struggling infants became more apparent and new protocols were established to ensure the safety of banked milk, she said.
These efforts were sent into overdrive by a 2012 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics supporting the use of donor milk for at-risk newborns.
Before that policy, the AAP had said that all premature babies should be fed their own mother's milk.
But the new policy broadened that recommendation, saying that when mother's milk is not available, then premature and low-birth-weight babies should be fed donated breast milk. "That was a big difference," Landers said.
One of the nation's newest nonprofit milk banks, the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank in Portland, Ore., has succeeded well beyond its expectations since it opened in July 2013.
Organizers had projected that they would screen 40 mothers to become milk donors by the end of 2013, executive director Lesley Mondeaux said. They ended up screening 122 donors in that time, and another 79 so far this year.
One of the milk bank's donors, Dr. Emily Puterbaugh, volunteered because she's a pediatrician who had seen the benefits of breast milk for struggling babies.
"I had an oversupply," said Puterbaugh, 33, of Portland's Multnomah Village area. "Realizing I was going to have more milk than I needed for my baby, the first thing I thought of was the milk bank. I figured some of this milk could be used for other babies in need."
Becoming a volunteer donor wasn't simple. Puterbaugh had to fill out an extensive medical history for herself and her 6-month-old daughter, Nina, and get both her doctor and Nina's pediatrician to sign off on her capability to donate. She also underwent a blood screening to check for infectious diseases.
Part of the challenge the new milk banks face is getting the word out to mothers, Updegrove said.
"I meet people almost weekly who say, 'I wish I knew about the milk banks because I ended up throwing out a gallon of milk,'" she said. "I long to hear milk banking has become as common as blood banking, where everybody knows about it."
Another problem is money. Although the breast milk is donated, the banks rack up expenses as they screen donors, operate milk drops, process the milk and ship it to hospitals and families.