Build A Better Milk Bank System

08.19.12 How breast milk banks save babies lives


Whenever I post something about breastfeeding, we receive lots of passionate replies. I hope this post will do the same, but this time, I’m hoping readers will put their money where their comments are. I’m also hoping this breastfeeding topic is one we can all agree on.

Several years ago, I wrote about a milk depot opening right here in my hometown, Portland OR, currently lauded by the Centers for Disease Control as the #1 breastfeeding champion state in America. Yeah, baby! OK, they didn’t actually call us that, but Oregon does have the highest percentage of mothers who attempt breastfeeding and the most mothers who keep at it for at least six months. We do pretty darn good at the 12-month mark too.

But, I digress…back to that milk depot: A milk depot is a drop-off spot where women who produce more breast milk than their baby needs can donate their surplus for other mothers and babies who can’t breastfeed. The depot ships donated breast milk to one of 11 milk processing banks in the US and the milk bank makes sure it’s top-notch and safe before it distributes it to babies in need.

Portland has long-standing plans to open a bank where milk can be collected, tested, homogenized, pasteurized, and packaged for delivery to premature babies, babies with feeding disorders and other babies who desperately need breast milk. It doesn’t make sense from an economic or environmental standpoint to ship milk out of state for processing, then back to Portland to distribute to local hospitals and mothers. One estimate I heard is it cost a hospital approximately $35,000 to supply their NICU with donated breast milk for a year, but it cost $36,000 to ship it from their closest bank. Instead, why not process the milk nearby and save the whole operation a bunch of money, plus make less of a dent in the environment by reducing back and forth transportation?

The Northwest Mothers Milk Bank started out strong. A local Oregon hospital donated office space and staff, and there was hope the bank would open its’ doors in no time at all. But there it stands. As of this writing, the milk bank is on hold because it needs $140,000 to purchase equipment and supplies. $140,000 is a serious chunk of change, but when you consider how important breast milk is for saving babies lives and how much it costs to ship milk out of state, $140,000 doesn’t seem like much at all.

I attended a screening of the documentary, Donor Milk, last week held in part to educate the public about milk donation and in part as a fundraiser to help open Northwest Mothers Milk Bank. Donor Milk was created by Kevin West, a grieving father who’s baby died late in pregnancy. The documentary tells the stories of families like West’s who suffered unspeakable loss and donated milk as tributes to their babies. It also explains why some babies need breast milk, how milk donation works and the barriers we face here in the US to supplying hospitals, mothers and babies in need. The film details three avenues for milk donation: non-profit milk banking, for-profit milk banking and mother-to-mother milk donation. It was a three-Kleenex film that explored the experiences of mothers who lost their babies and mothers whose babies’ lives were saved because of milk donation.

A lot of people still say “ick” when they think about babies drinking other-mother’s milk. But think of it the way you do blood donation. It’s that vital. Most babies who receive donated milk are premies whose tiny stomachs can’t tolerate formula. In fact, one of the major and potentially fatal complications premies suffer is necrotizing enteric colitis. That’s medical speak for “intestinal death.” Breast milk is generally well tolerated by teeny-tiny, ultra-fragile intestines whereas formula is not. Some older babies are incapable of digesting formula because of developmental or genetic conditions, but can digest breast milk. Some mothers are unable to nurse or produce milk (like one mother at the documentary who had double mastectomies prior to giving birth), but want their babies to receive the best nutritional start in life. With donor milk, everybody wins.

But here’s the kicker, even though all medical experts agree breast milk is key to saving premies and other vulnerable babies’ lives, we only have 11 fully-operating milk banks in the United States. Brazil has a couple hundred. Crazy, right? What’s our problem? Money, of course, and that’s where you come in. Milk banks like Northwest Mothers Milk Bank need financial and in-kind donations (that means you can donate a dishwasher or walk-in freezer) to open their doors. The Human Milk Bank Association of North America needs breast milk donations, but they also encourage hospitals and health care providers to consider funding and opening milk depots and banks in their own states.

If you’re a nursing mother who produces more milk than you can pack in your freezer, consider donating it to a milk depot or bank near you. Log on to the Human Milk Bank Association of North America website to find one. If you have a few dollars or a brand new milk analyzer to spare, donate to the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank and help them open the doors to the only milk bank in the Pacific Northwest. And if you’re a midwife, OB-Gyn, Hospital or other maternal health expert or supporter, consider spearheading a milk bank in your state. To learn more about how milk banking saves babies lives, catch a screening of Donor Milk when it comes through your town. Be sure and bring your Kleenex…you’re going to need them.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? Email it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.

More about Jeanne