I am a donor mom. I started donating blood when I was 17 years old, I donated my hair a few times, and most recently I donated my breast milk. I will admit, the first time I donated blood it was to get out of class in high school. But, the satisfaction of knowing that I may have helped save a life kept me donating for years to come.
For the most part, everybody is familiar with blood banks and hair donation programs. The world of milk banks is far less accessible. I hope that changes soon.
When a person decides to donate blood they can typically do so fairly easily. There is a short screening process, and the trip to the blood bank to make your deposit really doesn’t take more than a few hours out of your day. You might even get some cookies and juice and a sticker to reward you for your contribution.
When a person decides to donate hair, the process might be a little bit more involved. It takes some time to grow a foot or more of hair. But again, the donation process is pretty simple. A couple of snips and a sassy new short hairstyle and you are all set. In both cases our bodies will automatically replenish what was lost with no extra effort on the part of the donor. But when a mother decides to donate her milk, it is not quite so straightforward. Our bodies make milk because of a supply and demand system. While some mothers produce an oversupply of milk, others produce just enough. All of us who wish to donate must invest a lot of time pumping to express the extra milk we need to share.
I personally did not make enough breast milk for my own first son. He received a combination of my milk and formula through his first year of life. Looking back I know that I could have definitely avoided the formula with the right support system, but that is another story. When my second son was born we had a much easier time nursing, but I still struggled with supply. I never thought I could become a milk donor. However when I learned of all the amazing, life saving benefits of donor milk I knew I had to try.
Happily, I now have an incredible support system. I am surrounded by several knowledgeable lactation consultants at work (New Mother New Baby), and I am part of the Breastfeed, Chicago! online community. The Chicago area is a great place to be for a breastfeeding mom! When my 3rd child was born, I made it a personal goal to donate breast milk. After giving myself about six weeks time to recover from her birth, I began pumping.
Unlike blood or hair donation, breast milk donation requires dedication. I pumped every single day. As a working mom it wasn’t just about donating. I was also pumping to make sure that my own daughter would have enough milk at home on the days that I was gone. I made sure to keep up with my prenatal vitamins, eat a good healthy diet, and avoid any kind of medication or supplement that was not ok for donor moms. When my older boys got Hand Foot and Mouth disease at school, I kept my pumped milk separated so as to make sure I did not donate milk from the time I was exposed to the illness. In short, I was very careful with the milk I pumped for my daughter and for potential recipients. For over a year I followed this protocol. I also started the donor screening process. I filled out a few forms, had a blood draw, and got signatures from my doctor and my pediatrician.
The amount of time and effort it takes to pump made it clear that I needed to make sure that my milk was going to the best possible place. I wanted to help save tiny lives! The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) is the governing body for non-profit milk banks across the country. HMBANA banks provide milk to the most vulnerable infants first in order to avoid a devastating illness called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). NECkills far too many formula fed preterm infants. For those of us here in the Chicago area, our local 501(c)(3) bank is the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes. (MilkBankWGL) Although the processing facility will not open its’ doors until early 2015, they already offer 27 places throughout Illinois and Wisconsin where pre-screened moms can drop off frozen breast milk. These sites are known as Milk Depots. When I first became a donor, there were only 2 Milk Depots in Illinois – now there are 6! In less than a year, the number of depots has tripled! I know that HMBANA Milk Banks try to make the donation process as easy as possible for donor moms, but it will still always require the dedication of regular pumping.
Recently I have seen some talk of milk banks that will pay certain moms for their milk. While that might seem like a great idea on the surface, I don’t really think it is a good choice in the long run. The “banks” that are offering compensation are actually “for-profit” companies that market themselves as milk banks. Some take the milk that mothers donate and turn it into a human milk based product that they sell to hospitals for a premium. In addition, I was surprised to learn that there are even companies that call themselves milk banks who in fact make a profit off of moms’ breast milk without any form of compensation for the donor moms. These companies often claim that a milk donation will benefit preemies – but there are many hospitals that will only accept milk from HMBANA milk banks. Some of these companies produce and sell human milk based nutritional supplements that may not even be intended for babies. As a donormom, I like to know where my donation is going.
I want to know that the product I worked so hard to create will go directly to a child who needs human milk to survive. I want the assurance that the processing methods are of the highest safety standards and keep the integrity of my milk alive. I want the sickest babies to be the first to benefit from my donation, regardless of the finances of their families or of the hospitals where they happen to be born. Consider that hospitals that purchase milk products from for-profit companies will spend up to $100,000 more every year. I think it would make more sense to use those resources to pay a lactation
consultant or peer counselors to help NICU mothers provide their own milk for their babies.
I know that as a volunteer donor I have no motivation to dilute or alter my milk in any way. I know that I will feed my own child first and only donate the milk that I can spare. I know that mothers who struggle financially will not be asked to choose between feeding their own child or earning extra money for the family. I know that I will stick to the safety guidelines for diet and supplements because my milk could potentially be used to treat a seriously ill baby. I know that when my milk is blended with the milk of other moms as an additional safety precaution I can be confident that they are donating for the same reason I am – to save tiny lives.
When I made the decision to donate my milk, I chose to donate to a Milk Bank that is part of the HMBANA system because I could be certain of what would happen to my donation. There are several NICUs in the Chicago area that currently order donor milk from our closest processing facility, The Milk Bank in Indiana. They will soon receive their milk from our local bank right here in Illinois. As more Milk Depots continue to open, I truly hope that HMBANA milk banks become a widely recognized resource not only in the NICU and breastfeeding communities, but to all families.
I am happy to know that I did not help any company make a profit. I don’t want to be paid for my breast milk. I simply want to know that it helped a family in need. My blood will flow and my hair will grow, but my lactating days are limited. I am proud to know that I may have contributed to the survival of a brand new baby.
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Susan Urbanski is a fellow breastfeeding mom, along with being a knowledgeable breastmilk donor. She works at New Mother New Baby and is an active member of Breastfeed, Chicago!