Milk of Kindness

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Breast milk donation center allows lactating moms to help at-risk babies 

Jessica Ventura-Ewing was the first mom to donate her milk through the Dar a Luz depot. Photo by Elise Kaplan

Jessica Ventura-Ewing was the first mom to donate her milk through the Dar a Luz depot.
Photo by Elise Kaplan

By Elise Kaplan

In a homey room arranged with plush couches, bookshelves and a kitchenette, women mill around chatting, drinking coffee or tea and playing with their infants. Conversation during weekly meetings of the breastfeeding support group at Dar a Luz birthing center in Albuquerque revolves around the babies at every woman’s side, including feeding practices and other new-mom concerns.

While Dar a Luz offers prenatal classes and alternative birthing options, its newest service was initiated early this month: On April 3, the center opened the first breast milk depot in New Mexico equipped with materials to collect donated milk.

The depot allows lactating mothers to provide a blood sample and breast milk, which are shipped to the Mothers’ Milk Bank in Denver, one of 12 in North America. The bank screens for diseases and pasteurizes the milk before it’s distributed to neonatal intensive care units in hospitals around the country.

A policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics cites research findings that breast milk benefits the general health and development of infants and decreases the likelihood of chronic disease later in life. Because mothers of premature or at-risk babies might not be able to lactate, hospitals provide donated milk.

“Over the past several years there have been lots of new medical studies showing decreased incidents of infection in pre-term infants with donor human milk,” says Lorraine Lockhart-Borman, manager of the Mothers’ Milk Bank. “That got the attention of the neonatologists in the intensive care units, and they started prescribing it more and more.”

Borman says rising awareness about breast milk’s benefits for infants has led to shortages of donated breast milk. The emergence of every new collection depot means more milk for more babies.

A woman can typically pump between three to five ounces of milk in one sitting. One ounce can be enough to feed a premature baby for a day. Photo by Elise Kaplan

A woman can typically pump between three to five ounces of milk in one sitting. One ounce can be enough to feed a premature baby for a day.
Photo by Elise Kaplan

Dar a Luz is the 16th depot to serve the Denver milk bank, which charges hospitals a processing fee—$3.50 per ounce—for pasteurization and screening of new donors. Hospitals then provide the milk to newborns for free, says Borman, as a way to keep infections and other ailments at bay.

The Human Milk Banking Association of America requires pasteurization to insure that bacterial or viral contamination is eliminated. (The process, combined with cold storage of the milk, does destroy some beneficial components, though medical research shows many are preserved.)

The particulars of providing and receiving donated milk vary. Some women can produce 100 extra ounces, while others donate thousands during their lactation period. The best candidates are non-smoking mothers with babies under nine months old. Babies born prematurely or with severe illnesses are the most likely to receive donated milk. Healthy infants whose moms can’t produce adequate milk are given lower priority.

“We do have to make some hard decisions about who’s going to receive the milk,” Borman says. “If the hospital calls, and they want milk for their preemies in the neonatal intensive care unit, they’re immediately at the top of the list.”

Whitney Alfaro, a registered nurse, helped Dar a Luz to set up the Milk Depot. After giving birth at the center, she worked with the Denver milk bank to extend the donation practice to New Mexico. “A couple hospitals here already receive milk from the Denver Mother’s Milk Bank, so it will be nice to give Albuquerque babies Albuquerque milk,” she says. 

Jessica Ventura-Ewing was the first new mom to donate milk at Dar a Luz. She says she decided to get screened shortly after her daughter’s birth three months ago as a way to give back to the community.

“Savannah had donor milk when she was born to get her back to her birth weight, and it helped so much,” says Ventura-Ewing. “I figured now we could help out.”

Dar a Luz hosts its first Milk Drive today, Monday, April 22 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Another drive will be held Wednesday, May 22. Contact the center at (505) 924-2229 or visit the center’s website for more information about donating.

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