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The Mamafesto: What moms need to know about breast milk banks

When it comes to feeding babies, most of the focus is on breastfeeding versus formula feeding.

Yet there’s another option that deserves more attention and support. One that should be available for families who want to feed their babies breast milk but for whatever reason are not breastfeeding or pumping. And that option? Milk banks.

More: 20 Breathtaking photos to celebrate the beauty & benefits of breastfeeding

Milk banks are centers where people can donate excess breast milk that is strictly screened, processed and stored. Depending on the particular milk bank, the milk then goes to a variety of people but mostly to families who have babies with various challenges (like failure to thrive, allergies, formula intolerance, premature birth, infectious diseases and more). To learn more about how it all happens, I spoke with Naomi Bar-Yam, Ph.D., executive director of Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, a milk bank located in Massachusetts.

The idea for a milk bank came to Bar-Yam back in 2006. She had emailed colleagues about it, and they met in her living room to discuss making it a reality. In 2008, they moved into a space where they began dispensing milk from another bank, and then started screening their own donors and pasteurizing milk in 2011.

Mother's Milk Bank of New England: freezer

Image: Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast

“We are a relatively young milk bank,” explains Bar-Yam. “We have only been processing milk for about four years, and we are growing every year. In 2014, we dispensed about 200,000 ounces of milk to hospitals and families throughout the Northeast U.S.”

MMBNE is a member of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, a national organization that has almost 30 running and developing milk banks throughout the U.S. and Canada. According to Bar-Yam, the entire HMBANA network dispensed 3.77 million ounces in 2014, about a 20 percent increase over the previous year. When it comes to access, Bar-Yam notes that it’s about growth and that HMBANA has been growing each year, making it easier for families across North America to access donor milk.

More: The Mamafesto: Working moms tell us about pumping breast milk on the job

Since not everyone may have a milk bank in their community, there can be a lot of misinformation when it comes to figuring out what they do, exactly. Bar-Yam hopes to clarify some of the misconceptions out there. “People are surprised that we charge fees for milk even though we are nonprofit,” Bar-Yam shares. “Most hospitals and universities are also nonprofit and surely charge for their services.”

Mother's Milk Bank of New England lab

Image: Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast

Bar-Yam also wants people to know that they pasteurize the milk that is donated. There’s a myth that donated milk might have unknown substances in it, but MMBNE has very specific and strict screening and processing protocols for its milk. They are very careful because they understand the importance of the product they are handling.

“Recent studies have shown that hospitals that use donor milk in the NICUs have increased breastfeeding rates and need less milk over time,” explains Bar-Yam. “The message that is sent by using donor human milk is very powerful, and it is an important part of breastfeeding support.” The bottom line is that milk banks can be an excellent stopgap for some families or a necessary lifeline for others and need our support.

More: The Mamafesto: 5 Things breastfeeding moms need from the rest of us

Here’s how you can help support milk banks, according to Naomi Bar-Yam:

  1. Help us get the word out. Let health care providers, doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, LLL leaders, WIC peer counselors and others who work with expectant and new parents know about donating milk so they can educate their patients and clients.
  1. Get the right info out there! Let them also know that some milk banks also make milk available to moms who are having some trouble with bringing in milk supply. A few bottles of donor milk will help to feed the baby while Mom’s supply comes in.
  1. Let new moms know about milk banks. If a mom has more milk than she needs, she can call the HMBANA milk bank nearest her and ask about donating the milk to help premature, fragile babies in her community. Milk donation should be like blood donation: Not everyone wants to donate, not everyone is eligible, but everyone knows about it. Everyone should know about milk donation too.

More: Mother donates 29 gallons of breast milk to help other moms

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