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Banking on Mother's Milk

Buying Breast Milk Online: What You Need to Know
Buying Breast Milk Online: What You Need to Know
baby bottles

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.

That's how Kesha Hasty learned about milk banks. The 30-year-old mother began pumping her milk and saving it in preparation for a trip she took after the birth of her son, Malik, who arrived December 15, 2009. Before she knew it, Hasty filled her refrigerator, freezer, and deep freezer, as well as her mother's freezer. She knew her son wouldn't be able to consume all of that milk, but she wasn't sure what to do. That's when she saw a note on a friend's Facebook page that said milk banks were in desperate need of donations.

Hasty, who lives in Stafford, Virginia, called WakeMed Mother's Milk Bank, the closest milk bank to her, located in Raleigh, North Carolina. After a series of questions, she went through the donor process: a blood test that screens for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and other diseases; notes from her ob-gyn and Malik's pediatrician; and a milk donation exceeding 200 ounces. Once all the paperwork was in order, the milk bank sent Kesha a cooler and FedEx labels, and she sent them her frozen, bagged milk--222 ounces in all. Once the milk arrived at the milk bank, it was pasteurized to kill bacteria and diseases and then dispensed to a child in need.

"I was fortunate to have quite a bit of extra milk so I was able to donate it," says Hasty. "Not only was I helping my child out, but I was able to provide someone else's baby with this," says Hasty.

Experts like Gina Ciagne, certified lactation counselor and senior director of breastfeeding and consumer relations with Lansinoh Laboratories, say that donor breast milk is the next best option, after mother's milk. "According to the World Health Organization the mother's milk is the ideal food for her infant," says Ciagne. "If the baby can't get milk from his or her mother, the next best thing is donated milk because it's species specific."

Ciagne says that milk banks are becoming more popular as breast milk feeding becomes more accepted in the United States. But management of breast milk is expensive--at the Mother's Milk Bank of Iowa, the costs average out to just over $4 an ounce--for a variety of reasons. The screening and pasteurization process and the overhead of the nonprofit milk banks are costly. Parents need a prescription to get donated breast milk, much of which goes to babies who were born prematurely or are struggling with an illness in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. Hospitals are the first priority, but milk is also prescribed regularly to children with sick mothers and to adoptive parents. Because of low supplies, milk banks are struggling to keep up with demand. Ciagne hopes to see that change.

"The more people know about it, the more they want to do something about it," says Ciagne. "Knowledge is power."

To learn more about milk donations and to find your local milk bank, go to HMBANA.org.

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.