What happens when a baby is born premature and the mother isn’t able to produce breast milk? What if the baby is born sick and the mother can’t feed him or her? Parents who want to feed their baby breast milk instead of formula may be eligible to receive donor human milk from the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Austin (MMBA), a nonprofit organization that collects and donates breast milk in Texas and 22 other states.
An estimated 500,000 ounces, which is equal to almost 4,000 gallons, of human milk were donated to and distributed by MMBA in 2015.
In the San Antonio area, 80 donors were approved in 2015, as were an additional 66 donors in the first half of 2016. According to MMBA Executive Director Kim Updegrove, these local donors provide 15% of the organization’s supply.
After the milk is received frozen at the MMBA facilities, the milk is thawed and poured into flasks. A sample of each donor’s milk is then scanned by infrared spectroscopy to determine the protein, fat, and lactose content. Finally, the milk is separated into mixed pools based on nutritional content and bottled, followed by a 30-minute pasteurization process at 144.5 degrees. The donations are cultured to ensure the absence of bacteria and stored in a deep freeze until they are donated.
“Our mission is to save lives with donor human milk,” Updegrove said. “San Antonio women really step up to that cause.”
One of the most prominent causes for babies to receive donated milk, Updegrove said, is the prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). The disease causes the walls of an infant’s intestinal tract to be invaded by bacteria, which can lead to local infection and inflammation that can compromise the intestinal wall. Babies who develop NEC are more likely to develop lifelong complications or die because of it. Breast milk-fed babies are significantly less likely to contract NEC than babies receive formula.
Leslie Pointon is one of those donors. She’s a captain in the Air Force who, until a few months ago, was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base. Pointon told the Rivard Report that she’s experienced the impact of having a premature baby and the resulting pressure to produce breast milk first-hand. After giving birth to her son Samuel in 2015, she was referred to the MMBA by a co-worker who left brochures in a workplace nursing room.
“I felt called to do it. Both of my boys were premature,” Pointon explained. “Sonny was born at 18 weeks and we lost him. Samuel was 35 weeks. We caught a glimpse of the stresses that a premature baby can have on a family, so this is something I can do to help families in that situation.”
After she reached out to the milk bank, MMBA employees sent her a donor packet that asks for basic medical history. She was approved after taking a blood test.
“Every time I pumped I would save an ounce or two at a time,” Pointon said. “When I would have 100 ounces, I took it to the local depot.”
When a Northeast Baptist nurse, who did not want to be named, was asked for comment, she praised MMBA’s work.
“They are the premier human milk bank in the United States, in my opinion,” the nurse said. “They are the best at targeted milk pooling.”
Eric Cooper, SA Food Bank president and CEO, told the Rivard Report that the Food Bank’s growing partnership with MMBA is geared toward closing the nutrition gap that exists among low-income mothers.
“This is truly about nutrition and food insecurity,” Cooper said. “Access to the right foods at the right amounts at the right time is the solution to hunger and nourishment.”
With the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program, Cooper said, the food bank tries to educate young, expectant mothers on the process of providing the best quality nourishment at the lowest cost. Before the partnership with MMBA, the Food Bank did not have a direct way to help mothers who couldn’t produce their own milk.
“We’ve been working with (MMBA) for six months now,” Cooper explained. “Over the last few months, we have received 6,143 ounces of mother’s milk. That goes a long way to nourish a lot of infants.”
In the future, Cooper said that he foresees more donors coming on board. He wants to start managing the process more directly in order to eliminate transportation costs and wait times.
Another benefit to the program is breaking the stigma around breastfeeding, Cooper added.
“In American culture, breastfeeding can be a little awkward,” he said. “For us, reassuring these mothers that breastfeeding is natural and appropriate is something we need to support.”
Pointon feels the same way.
“I think there’s a shift in encouraging breastfeeding,” she said, “although I don’t think that the breast milk donation process has been widely talked about. I try to talk to new moms about it.”
Pointon is expecting another baby in March. Although she’s now stationed at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. she said that she’ll be donating again.
“I do it to honor my first son and show my gratitude for my second son,” she said. “I equate it to giving blood. It’s simple, it’s free, and it saves someone’s life.”
Top image: San Antonio Food Bank and H-E-B trucks park near the warehouse and garden at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo by Scott Ball.