Following my article about Prolacta and the for-profit breast milk industry, I received an email from Maryanne at the non-profit Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose. Maryanne wondered if I would be interested in posting about non-profit milk banking, and I jumped at the chance! I had a wonderful conversation with Executive Director Pauline Sakamoto about the work that Mothers’ Milk Bank does, and I’m glad to be able support this organization by sharing what I learned.
Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose, California is a non-profit, HMBANA (I am having a hard time saying “Hmmbana” for some reason) milk bank. It’s one of many scattered across the US and Canada that collects breast milk from donors to provide to babies and children in need. HMBANA banks set the standard for all milk banks in that they not only receive endorsements from health agencies, but they collect and distribute their milk in a way that adheres to a specific set of best practices.
Pauline explained to me that one of the biggest things that sets HMBANA banks apart is the focus on the breastfeeding relationship. The main goal is to get mom and baby breastfeeding, not ship out a certain volume of milk. Many of the employees at Mothers’ Milk Bank are IBCLCs and RNs, and they work with moms to get them in touch with lactation support specialist in their own area.
I learned so much from speaking to Pauline. I had always been under the impression that milk bank milk was almost impossible to get and that it was only for premies in the NICU. I had assumed that, upon leaving the hospital, moms and babies would be left to fend for themselves.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
I was amazed to learn about the diversity of the population that Mothers’ Milk Bank serves! They provide milk to micropremies up to babies 2 and 3 years old! They are even currently providing milk to a 7 year old suffering from spinal-muscular dystrophy. Without his own mother’s milk and the milk provided by the milk bank, this little boy would not be alive today. They also occasionally provide milk to adult cancer patients.
All a person needs to receive milk from the bank is a prescription from a doctor. Many insurance policies cover the cost of the milk, and if not, often employees of the bank chip in to cover the cost of the milk. And what is that cost? Only enough to cover the costs of shipping and processing the milk, usually between $3 and $4.50.
It is often difficult for the bank, though, because demand almost always outpaces supply. The bank focuses on situations where a mom is trying very hard to breastfeed but is not able to due to medical reasons like a double mastectomy or other situation. In other cases, they support the mom’s attempts to breastfeed while providing the donor milk as a supplement to the mom’s actions.
I was also surprised at how easy it is to donate milk. If you can give blood, chances are good that you can also donate milk. Mothers’ Milk Bank covers that cost of shipping and for moms not living in a city with a milk bank, there are often depots set up to receive the milk and help transfer it to the bank. This was surprising to me. I always thought that you had to live in a city with a milk bank in order to donate to the bank. They can even collect milk from Alaska and Hawaii and there are three banks in Canada!
Once they receive the milk, they process it in very small batches. Typically, they will combine milk from 2-4 donors, although sometimes they will note that there is a higher level of bacteria in a particular mom’s milk. If they see that, they pasteurize her milk separately. They work to make sure that the donors in the combined batches all have babies that are of similar age so that they can match the “age” of the milk to the age of the recipient baby. They bottle the milk and treat it in a hot water bath using a method called Holder Pasteurization. They heat the milk to 62.5 degrees C for 30 minutes. Pauline told me that they have found that this method is most effective in killing off bacteria and viruses that may be in the milk while preserving as much of the benefits of the milk as possible.
Once the milk is processed, they ship it out to the patients. It’s that simple.
According to Pauline, the biggest challenge they face is finding enough milk to meet the demand of patients. Because they serve a larger population than just premies in the NICU, they often find that they have more patients than available milk. This is where for profit milk collection becomes an issue. It can take enough milk to feed four or five babies to make enough of the fortified milk for one baby. Any competition for milk can make servicing the existing patients difficult for the non-profits.
When I asked Pauline about mother-to-mother milk sharing, my preferred method of milk sharing, she did not discourage this practice, but she said that no matter what you are doing with your milk, be sure you really know where it is going. She has heard stories of professional atheletes soliciting for breast milk, and one advantage of going through a HMBANA bank is that it gives mom a layer of protection from liability in case a recipient baby does become ill. This definitely made me pause and think. The milk I have given has been to friends, but I wonder how comfortable I would have been donating milk in a more annonymous situation?
The main thing that Pauline wanted to get across is this:
HMBANA has been here for years and years. We all service different people with different needs, and if we could work together and keep in concept that the mission is to help moms breastfeed it would be beneficial. We do need milk. We do need moms to know about us. There are babies behind who we serve and children who are failing to thrive that really need the support. If we had to close down because every mom was breastfeeding, we would do it!
We have excellent moms in the US that are breastfeeding in this country. And bless them for having that extra milk and saying “Can anybody use it?”
Here is more information about donating to Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose.
Here is a link to the HMBANA site to help you find a non-profit milk bank near you.
I am grateful to Pauline for her time and for the hard work that she and other HMBANA bank employees do for breastfeeding moms and babies.