By Helen Anderson
“On February 19, 2011 The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) asked healthy lactating mothers to consider donating to a milk bank so that fragile babies will be fed this life-giving and sustaining nutrition.
HMBANA announced that the non-profit milk banks in North America have reached critically low levels of screened donor human milk for fragile babies in relation to demand.”
My journey to milk donation was unexpected to say the least. I had no idea milk banks even existed – It all started with a comment from my husband one night as he pulled a bag of frozen peas from the freezer. “You have got to get rid of some of this breast milk, we are running out of space for our food. Seriously, our food is relegated to this little corner,” he pointed to a crowded spot next to the ice cube trays, mixed veggies and frozen pork chops created a precarious pile. He was right; my breast milk was slowly taking over our freezer.
The milk surplus was my security blanket– plastic bags filled with peace of mind. I stopped nursing my first son at 10 months, far sooner than I planned. A nursing strike and dwindling supply were challenges I did not have the tools to overcome at the time. Working 12 hour shifts in a busy emergency room, some days I wouldn’t pump at all. Hindsight being what it is; I would do things so differently. But the experience made me value every drop almost obsessively.
I told my husband, “I don’t know what to do with it; I can’t just throw it out.” I had worked hard for that cache and I was determined it would not be wasted. I created the first Milk-Saver from cardboard and a plastic bag when my son Henry was 3 weeks old, and collected about 6 oz. each day. I got up every night at 3am to pump as not to awaken in a pool of my own milk. Each day I proudly stashed 16-20 ounces.
I searched the internet for ideas of what to do with extra breast milk and discovered the concept of milk banking. I search a milk bank website to learn the criteria to become a donor – Henry and I both had to be healthy (we both needed notes from our doctors stating as such), no prescription medications and an adequate freezer. So far, so good. So I sent off an email to the milk bank, and in short order, a nurse came to my house to draw blood to screen for Hepatitis and HIV and other disorders. The last step was to swab my cheek, al’a CSI to collect my DNA. My DNA profile would be compared to the milk I would send in to confirm it was actually mine. (This is a somewhat controversial practice, but we won’t address that here. Send me an email and we can talk about it.)
All together the screening process took about 4 weeks, the milk bank sent me a huge cooler and ice bags with a Fed Ex overnight prepaid label. I had over 350 ounces of liquid gold in my freezer, and I sent away 250 ounces, keeping a good stash for my own sense of security. I sent two more shipments of over 200 ounces in the months that followed. My goal was to store 20 ounces per day.
The months I spent pumping and donating breast milk were unlike any others. Although my Henry slept through the night early in life, I did not. I kept my 3 a.m. appointment with the pump to collect milk for babies I will never know, to help families whose challenges I can only imagine. Most donor milk is used in the NICU to nourish critically ill infants and other special needs.
If you are a lactating mother, consider becoming a donor. You have a unique opportunity to give a potentially life-saving gift to a vulnerable baby. To find out more about human milk banking or find a milk bank near you, check out http://www.hmbana.org/ Have you donated milk to a milkbank?
Helen Anderson is a Registered Nurse (RN) and Certified Lactation Educator (CLE). She founded Milkies alongside her mother, Renee Callanan. Together, the mother-daughter team created a patented product, The Milk Saver, which enables breastfeeding mothers to collect milk from the non-nursing side during a breastfeeding or pumping session. Helen lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and two sons. She is an advocate for the Human Milk Banking Association of America and spends a lot of time traveling the country to attend tradeshows and breastfeeding conferences.