Banking on Mother's Milk

Thanks to social media and growing awareness, milk banks are on the rise. Now, they need more donations to keep up with demand.
Buying Breast Milk Online: What You Need to Know
Buying Breast Milk Online: What You Need to Know
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Bryan McCay

Melissa Viers nursed her third baby, Josiah, just as she'd done with his two older siblings. When Josiah was six months old, Melissa found a lump in her breast. Cancer. Her doctor told her she needed to start chemotherapy treatments. She would also have to stop nursing her baby.

Melissa, 27, who lives in Creston, Iowa, was devastated. "Obviously, I was very upset that I had cancer, but the biggest thing was having to stop nursing," she says. "I never wanted my kids to have formula if I could help it."

Through her job as a breastfeeding peer counselor with WIC, a federally funded program that encourages nutrition for women, infants, and children, Melissa had learned about human milk banks. There, donated breast milk is screened, pasteurized, and prescribed for mothers and babies in need. With a prescription from her doctor for donor milk, Melissa called Mother's Milk Bank of Iowa, a nonprofit milk bank located in Coralville, Iowa, and arranged to have shipments of milk sent to her home.

When Josiah was 8 months old, he began drinking donated milk. Melissa was relieved at the seamless transition. Now, with her cancer in remission, she looks back on the stresses of chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy, and she's relieved to know that Josiah, now 15 months was getting the next best nutrients to what she could provide.

According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), milk donations and milk banks are on the rise. HMBANA, a nonprofit organization that sets the standards for and operates milk banks in North America, has helped facilitate the increase in milk banks and milk bank awareness since 1985, when the organization began.

In 2010, HMBANA distributed 1.8 million ounces, up from 1.5 million ounces in 2009 and 1.4 million ounces in 2008. Jean Drulis, president of HMBANA and director and co-founder of Mother's Milk Bank of Iowa, says she expects that growth to continue. Ten HMBANA milk banks exist, with nine in the U.S. and one in Canada. There are currently six more milk banks in development, and Drulis hopes that eventually there will be at least one milk bank in every state. Until then, HMBANA milk banks will continue working with local parents while also receiving milk shipments from donors and sending out pasteurized milk to more distant recipients.

Drulis attributes the increase in milk bank use to growing acceptance and awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding. In particular, websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and even Craigslist have helped spread the word. On these sites, women now share information--like their need for breast milk or their abundance of breast milk--that was once kept private.

Word has also spread through the practice of "casual sharing," the term applied to milk sharing when there is no screening, pasteurization, or middleman--a process that HMBANA doesn't condone. The Food and Drug Administration, American Academy of Pediatrics, and La Leche League do not recommend casual sharing of milk.

"I think it's been a plus for us that the word is spreading as a result of the social networking of milk," says Drulis.

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