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Q&A: Mothers' Milk Bank of New England

Posted by Kristi Palma  August 30, 2012 08:27 AM

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Mothers' Milk Bank of New England

Lab tech Kelly Fischl mixing milk before pasteurization.

Breast milk is now a lot easier to get in these parts. The Mothers' Milk Bank of New England in Newton, which set up shop in 2008, began processing milk a year ago and added a drop-off site at Isis Parenting in Hanover earlier this month.

Before this bank opened, the nearest breast milk bank to us was in Ohio, said executive director Naomi Bar-Yam. The non-profit bank 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, how women can donate, and more. Moms: Why do you think breast milk is best for baby?

Bar-Yam: Milk is species specific so human milk, over many eons of time, is designed for human babies. It has the right balance of nutrients and calories, fat, and carbs, and immune factors and growth factors and all of those things that are really designed for human babies. Moms: Does it matter if a baby drinks breast milk from a woman who is not her mother?

Bar-Yam: Breast milk from his own mother 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 child birth, and (so) within the clan and community babies had to be fed. Moms: Tell us what the Mothers' Milk Bank of New England does.

Bar-Yam: 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. Moms: How can a woman donate her milk?

Bar-Yam: 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 email.

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. Moms: What happens to the milk once it’s donated?

Bar-Yam: 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. Moms: How can a woman receive milk from the bank?

Bar-Yam: 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. Moms: What is the cost?

Bar-Yam: Technically, she is not paying for the milk. However, all of those processes we go through to make sure the milk is safe costs money and that’s what you pay for. It is $4.50 per ounce to buy milk. And we have milk in 3 ounce and 6 ounce bottles. Moms: Should women order milk online?

Bar-Yam: I don’t think ordering milk online is a great idea ... at this point sharing milk over the Internet is completely unregulated and you have absolutely no idea what you’re getting. There are some nasty things you can get through milk that are communicable. We test all of our moms for HIV, HTLV, syphilis, hepatitis B and C. And CMV can be transmitted. It is killed in pasteurizing. Moms: According to your website, 12 New England hospitals are using donated milk in NICUs and nurseries. Why not more?

Bar-Yam: 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. Moms: What is your view on formula?

Bar-Yam:There are times when formula can be helpful and can save a life. But those are fewer and farther between than the times it is being used. It’s being used instead of human milk widely and that’s not a good idea. Moms: What do you want women to know most about your milk bank?

Bar-Yam: 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 easily as possible.

For the women who do it, I think it’s a very fulfilling and meaningful process.
We get calls from mothers whose babies have died and they were pumping and pumping for these babies and the babies didn’t make it and they have a freezer full of milk and they say this is a gift from me and my baby and it’s very healing. So we get those kinds of calls.

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Kristi Palma, Moms producer, is the mom of a first grader and a preschooler. She is a writer who enjoys cooking her grandmother's Italian recipes (when her son isn't launching paper airplanes into them). Follow her on Twitter @kristipalma.
Jennifer Clark Estes is a teacher, writer, blogger, and the mother of four young children. In her free time, she blogs at A Mom's World, plays with the kids (or chauffeurs them around), and is desperately seeking a quiet spot so she can read a book. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferCEstes.

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