Christian Wheatley, iStock
For any baby, a mother’s milk is literally the nectar of life, but for babies born prematurely, even more so. Recent studies have shown that premature infants who are fed only human milk are significantly less likely to develop necrotizing enterocolitis, a deadly inflammation of the intestines, than those fed formula derived from cow’s milk. They require fewer days of intravenous feedings and leave the hospital sooner. But many mothers, coping with their own medical challenges following a premature delivery, cannot provide this protective nourishment.
Now it’s more convenient than ever for moms of healthy babies to donate excess breast milk to preemies—and for beneficiary moms to feel confident in the milk’s safety. Last November, Piedmont Healthcare partnered with California-based Prolacta Bioscience to launch a “virtual milk bank” through which women can donate and ship frozen milk from the comfort of their homes. (The milk, of course, is quite tangible, though the donor mother’s medical and DNA profile are managed digitally.) Donated milk undergoes rigorous testing for viruses and other contaminants before Prolacta pasteurizes and processes it into a standard formulation that meets specific calorie, fat, and protein requirements.
“Many other hospitals are using donor milk from voluntary milk banks, but these milk banks do not require the highly specific safety standards to which Piedmont’s virtual milk bank adheres, and the [donor] mothers also are responsible for getting the donated milk to the milk bank location,” says Dr. Scott Johnson, director of neonatal services at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital.
In light of the proven health benefits, all NICUs will soon use donor breast milk in lieu of formula when a mother cannot breastfeed, Johnson says. This could lead to a nationwide shortage. (Through its partnership with Prolacta, Piedmont says it can ensure a supply for babies born before 34 weeks.)
Interested in adding to the bank? You must first fill out a comprehensive medical history. An eligible candidate then provides a consent form from her doctor and her baby’s pediatrician, a DNA cheek swab (Prolacta sends a kit), a freezer temperature reading, and a blood sample. A Prolacta technician pays a house call to administer the blood test and provide storage and shipping supplies. For more on how the process works, see the video below.
The time commitment is a bit greater than donating blood—but as with giving blood, your efforts connect you to other human beings in a profoundly direct way. “Mothers unable to provide their own breast milk because of a medical condition or other complication often feel helpless,” says Kathleen King, Piedmont’s senior director of women’s services. “When a fellow mother steps forward to donate, she should know her gift could not only save the life of a child but help put another mom’s mind at ease.” Learn more at piedmont.prolacta.com.