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Breast-milk shortage hits milk banks; tiniest babies at risk

Got milk? Human milk banks are experiencing an unprecedented breast-milk shortage, forcing them to turn away babies in need.

There are 10 nonprofit banks in the U.S. and one in Vancouver. Usually they can help each other out when supplies run low, but not now. “For the last four months, everyone has been struggling to find enough milk,” says Pauline Sakamoto, executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose, Calif. 

Donors are willing, but demand is growing faster than supply. The total supply increases 8 percent to 10 percent every year, Sakamoto says, but “the demand has just outpaced our ability to collect the milk. It’s mainstream medicine now.”

One reason, says Kim Updegrove, executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank in Austin, Texas, is that “scientific research has shown irrefutably over the last few years that human milk-only feeding to these babies is critical.”

Babies (or rather, their parents) need a doctor’s prescription to obtain donor milk from the banks. The banks’ top priorities are the tiniest preemies in neonatal intensive care units as well as infants who’ve had surgery.

About half of those preemies’ moms can pump enough milk for them, Updegrove says. But pumping for a preemie in the NICU is really hard, especially for first-time moms. The stress of the NICU alone “is enough to decrease significantly the supply of milk," she said. "Instead of having the very lovely and cuddly baby to hold in your arms, you instead have this child whom you’re probably not able to touch at this point.”

Just last year,  the banks had enough milk to supply babies who weren’t even in the hospital, such as infants whose mothers had a double mastectomy or the full-term babies who couldn't keep formula down but whose mothers couldn't breastfeed, says Sakamoto, herself a former donor. “I can’t serve them anymore. And as a nurse and as a mom, I can’t handle that.”

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Most donors are women who have more than enough milk to feed their own babies, Updegrove says. Occasionally, women who’ve lost a baby donate, she says. “Breast milk comes in whether you have an infant or not. They do it in honor of their deceased child.”

You don’t have to live near a milk bank to donate. Once you are screened — the main reason women are excluded from donating is if they’re taking certain medications — a milk bank will send a cooler, which you can pack up and ship back overnight at the bank’s expense. For more information about donating, go to the milk banking association’s website.

Many informal milk-sharing website have sprung up in recent years, but both Updergrove and Sakamoto urge women to consider donating to the nonprofit milk banks instead, because they prioritize the highest-need cases. For a healthy full-term infant, Updergrove points out, an extra 200 ounces of milk represents only about eight meals. For that struggling preemie, it means so much more, she said: “You could save a lot of lives by donating your milk to the milk bank.”