Like blood, breast milk is a living fluid with properties that can be invaluable to babies who are born prematurely, or more than three weeks before their due date.
“Fresh milk has tons of active live white cells, it has lots of anti-infective properties, there are all kinds of growth factors,” said Dr. Michelle Brenner, a pediatrician and medical director of The King’s Daughters Milk Bank at the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk. “There are so many components in it that can provide help to a baby that really needs it to grow.”
As one of the 27 nonprofit milk banks affiliated with the Human Milk Bank Association of North America, The King’s Daughters Milk Bank accepts donated breast milk to serve patients in 30 hospitals in Virginia and Maryland.
Since opening its doors in 2014, Brenner said the bank has collected 1.7 million ounces of breast milk from nearly 400 donors per year and provides about 1,000 ounces of milk per week to patients at CHKD.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk from either mother or a donor be used especially for babies receiving care in neonatal intensive care units or NICUs, but Brenner said their affiliation with the children’s hospital allows them to reach more patients who could benefit from the milk’s healing properties.
The King’s Daughters Milk Bank is the only milk bank that also provides breast milk to those receiving outpatient care and pediatric intensive care unit patients up into their late teens.
“Because the milk bank is part of the hospital, we’re able to provide milk to our post-op heart patients, our oncology patients that might have some gut disruption from chemotherapy or radiation, and our gastrointestinal patients that might have short gut,” she said.
Brenner also said mothers, donors and recipients’ parents, have realized the importance of their milk without negative connotations around receiving or giving donated breast milk, “it’s a win and a positive experience for everybody,” she said.
Mother’s milk is always preferred, Brenner said, but when there are reasons it can’t be provided including pregnancy complications, delivery complications, or if a mom takes medications that could affect her breast milk, a donor’s milk can be used a “bridge.”
The bank uses a three-step interview and medical screening protocol under the advisement and recommendations of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Association of Blood Banks to ensure donors are clear of diseases like HIV and Hepatitis while a milk pasteurization process removes any possible bacteria and viruses of concern Brenner said.
“We also get a letter or statement from a mother’s [possible donor’s] obstetrician including her prenatal laboratory studies and a letter from the infant’s pediatrician stating the baby’s growing well and the mom is a suitable donor,” she said.
For the mothers who’ve lost their babies, Brenner said donating breast milk in memory of or as a legacy to their child can be a part of a bereavement and healing process.
“We save about an ounce of their breast milk that we then have made into a resin pearl and into a necklace that we will then send with a ‘thank you’ note,” she said.
Donating milk is free even for out of town donors to whom the milk bank will send a cooler and pay for overnight shipping to receive the breast milk.
“The hard thing about breast milk donors is unlike blood donors that can donate indefinitely, our breast milk donors are only able to donate during their lactation period — only about one percent of lactating women donate milk,” Brenner said.
For more information or to find out how to become a breast milk donor at The King’s Daughters Milk Bank at CHKD, click here.