Breast milk is easier to get here than it used to be. The Mothers’ Milk Bank of New England in Newton, which set up shop in 2008, began processing milk a year ago and recently added a drop-off site at Isis Parenting in Hanover. Before the local bank opened, the nearest breast milk bank was in Ohio, said Bar-Yam, the New England bank’s executive director. The nonprofit is part of a network of 12 Human Milk Banking Association of North America banks nationwide. We spoke with Bar-Yam by phone about how milk is processed, who receives it, and how women can donate.
Q. What does the Mothers’ Milk Bank of New England do?
A. We accept donations of milk from mothers who have more milk than their babies need. Those mothers are screened very carefully. And we pasteurize that milk and make it available, mostly to hospitalized premature babies whose mothers do not have enough for them. And we also dispense the milk to outpatient babies.
Q. Does it matter if a baby drinks breast milk from a woman who is not her mother?
A. Breast milk from his or her own mother is best, but other mothers’ milk is fine. Milk has been shared among mothers for a very, very long time. Throughout history you’ve had wet nurses, you’ve had emergencies where mothers were not available, did not survive childbirth, and within the clan and community babies had to be fed.
Q. How does a woman donate her milk?
‘We accept donations of milk from mothers who have more milk than their babies need. Those mothers are screened very carefully.’
A. If she has more milk than she needs for her baby (and it’s very important that she take care of her own baby first), the first thing she should do is look at our website. If she reads that and feels like, yes, she qualifies, she should give our office a call or send us an e-mail. Our donor screening process is basically a three-step process. The first step is a telephone screen. It takes about 10 minutes. Then we will send them either by mail or by e-mail a packet of materials, some of which is forms they need to sign and send back to us and there is an additional health form in there. We contact the mom’s doctor and her baby’s doctor to make sure that they have no concerns about the mom donating milk. Once that comes back, we will send her a blood kit and she will have her blood tested. Once we have the blood results back . . . then we will arrange to get her milk to us.
Q. What happens to the milk once it’s donated?
A. We usually process about four batches of milk a day. We thaw the milk out overnight. Then the milk is pooled. We usually take the milk of a couple of moms and pool it together in one batch so we get a really good mix of nutrients and immune factors, calories, etc. Then we pasteurize the milk. We put it into what’s called a shaking water bath. We heat the milk up to 62.5 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes and then we cool it down and refreeze it and we take one sample bottle from each batch for lab testing, for culturing, to make sure there’s no bacteria in the milk. Once we get the results back, it takes 48 hours, we can send it to whoever orders it.
Q. How can a woman receive milk from the bank?
A. We have hospitals that receive milk and we also have individuals. For individuals to receive milk, they can call our office. We will need a prescription, usually from their baby’s health care provider. Either they can pick up the milk or we ship it out to them.
Q. According to your website, 12 New England hospitals are using donated milk in NICUs and nurseries. Why not more?
A. That’s a good question. Some of the hospitals are using it as their standard of care. Instead of pulling formula off the shelf when a mother doesn’t have enough milk, they get milk from us. I think they’re just learning about it and the steps that a hospital needs to go through to make it happen . . . committees, budgets, safety and legal, etc. . . . those processes take time.
Q. What do you want women to know most about your milk bank?
A. To let them know that we exist. Nationally, there is a shortage. If you are interested in donating, please give your closest milk bank a call to donate. We try to make the screening process and the donating process as easy as possible. For the women who do it, I think it’s a very fulfilling and meaningful process.