Donating Nourishment

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Women around the country donate life-saving breast milk.

By Charles Downey
WebMD Feature

When Peggy Spies of Austin, Texas, delivered a stillborn baby last July after only 21 weeks of pregnancy, she knew her milk would soon come in and that it would be valuable to others. "I learned 'preemie' milk is even more rare and valuable than full-term mother's milk and decided to donate," says Spies. Not only would she be helping others, Spies reasoned, but putting the milk to good use would help her grieve for her dead child.

So the busy mother of three paused six times each day at her job with the Texas General Land Office. She went to a private area and used a breast pump for twenty minutes. Over the next six weeks, she produced 673 ounces of breast milk, which she donated to the Mother's Milk Bank in Austin, Texas.

"My baby never drew a single breath, but I knew he would make a difference in some other baby's life," says Spies. Her milk was pooled with that of two other mothers and was distributed to 12 to 20 other premature infants, according to the milk bank.

The Benefits of Breast Milk

"Human milk is incredibly complex," says Sony Riviera, MD, president of the Mother's Milk Bank and medical director of Newborn Nurseries at St. David's Medical Center in Austin. "Science is discovering more nutrients, immunities, essential fats, and proteins that can only be found in human milk."

According to the October 20, 1999 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, babies who are breast-fed for at least one month are 21% less likely to develop childhood acute leukemia. The July 1999 issue of the British Medical Journal reported a study in which German children who were nourished exclusively with breast milk during the first three to five months of life were less likely to suffer from obesity when they reached school age than those raised on other foods.

Human breast milk is also used to help heal babies with infectious diseases, severe diarrhea, and pneumonia. Children with renal failure, cardiac problems, and burns may also benefit from mother's milk.

Some children can digest nothing else. Take, for example, Hannah Stewart of San Bernardino, Calif. Hannah weighed only one pound at birth and could not stomach any nourishment. After months of hospitalization, her physicians declared they could do nothing else for her. Hannah was 15 months old at this time; she had gone blind, and her coffin and burial gown had been purchased.

At the last moment, a family friend suggested human milk. After only several feedings, she started to thrive and gain weight; she even regained her eyesight. Hannah is now doing well and weighs 18 pounds -- about normal for her age.

As Milk Banks Increase, So Does Demand

"Milk is certainly not a standard treatment," said Marquelle Klooster, MD, one of Stewart's physicians and a pediatric gastroenterologist at Loma Linda University Medical Center in Loma Linda, Calif. But milk banks are on the rise, buoyed by medical research suggesting that human milk is far superior to both cow's milk and baby formulas.

All of them depend on donated milk; all charge nothing. The milk is distributed within regions on a worst-case-first basis. (Human milk for children and adults requires a physician's prescription.) Donors are screened for their health history and take blood tests for the HIV virus, syphilis, and Hepatitis B and C. Breast milk is pumped and delivered to the closest milk bank, where it is cultured and pasteurized.

Consumption of banked milk zoomed in California 33% last year. One reason for the increase, experts speculate, is the American Academy of Pediatrics' urging that mothers exclusively breast-feed their babies for the first six months of life. Adoptive parents, substance abusers, and others who can't nurse are now turning to the banks, all of which report being overwhelmed.

"Of the one-third of new moms who breast-feed, only about one percent donate milk," says Pauline Sakamoto, director of the San Jose facility. "Most donors are women who are happy to have healthy infants and want to help others."

Kelly Sitzman, of Parker, Colo., is one of those women. "I read about a woman whose milk was not good and her child was allergic to formula, so I decided to donate after having my second child."

On the east coast, you can find the nearest milk bank by calling Mary Rose Tully at 919-350-8599 at the Triangle Lactation Center and Milk Bank in Raleigh, North Carolina. On the west coast, phone Pauline Sakamoto at 408-998-4550.

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