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Donor milk for infants

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WORLD Radio - Donor milk for infants

A milk bank in Northern Illinois helps infants get the nutrition they need


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PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today is Thursday, August 11th.

Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Paul Butler.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: milk for babies.

For months, infant formula has been hard to come by. After a major plant shut down in February, many parents started getting desperate. And although the shortage has been easing up, about 20% of formulas are still unavailable. That’s why some moms have been turning to another option: donor milk.

BUTLER: It’s not a new concept. Moms with extra breast milk have helped parents in need for millenia. It’s especially important today for babies with serious medical issues or who are allergic to formula. And in the midst of the formula shortage, more parents are giving it a try. WORLD associate correspondent Leah Johansen visited a milk bank in northern Illinois, and brings our story.

MILK BANK OUTSIDE AMBI [TK]

LEAH JOHANSEN, REPORTER: If you’re looking for donor milk, the industrial park next to O’Hare airport might be the last place you’d think to check. But that’s where the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes makes its home.

GRETCHEN SPRINKLE: I probably drop off at the milk depot every other month, usually about 300 ounces. You know, I feel like I’ve been given so much that it just makes sense to give back.

Gretchen Sprinkle is a donor mom. She’s had three kids, and she’s donated milk with each one.

GRETCHEN SPRINKLE: With my middle, my daughter alone, it was over 12 gallons. Like I wasn't given all of this milk for no reason. So it just feels like something I was called to do. And it's so little of my time, and it benefits those babies and those families so much. At this point, I couldn't not do it.

At Mothers’ Milk Bank, there’s an application and screening process for moms who want to donate. Once they’re clear, the moms can drop off milk at a depot.

SUSAN URBANSKI: A milk depot is a site where an approved milk donor can drop off her milk. We have between 65 and 70 milk depots in Wisconsin and Illinois.

That’s Susan Urbanski. She’s the programs manager at the milk bank. Urbanski says that, since the formula shortage started, the bank has seen a 20% increase in milk inquiries. But they’ve also seen an increase in donors.

URBANSKI: Our donors have stepped up in record numbers. And that, to me, has been the biggest long term, noticeable thing that's happened with the formula shortage is it has helped increase awareness of the option of nonprofit milk banking.

Some moms donate because they have a lot of extra milk and their baby doesn’t need it all.

Others donate because of tragedy.

URBANSKI: Whether it was a pregnancy loss, or a NICU loss, or an older baby that died. All of these families echo the sentiment that they don't want their baby to be forgotten. So we do our best to make sure that these babies are remembered every single day.

Walking into the milk bank, the first thing you notice is that one wall is painted a vibrant electric blue. It’s covered in swirling galaxy patterns and hand lettered yellow stars.

URBANSKI: Each star is hand painted with the name and the birthday of a baby who has died, whose mom has chosen to honor that baby's legacy through milk donation.

AMBI: [MILK BANK FREEZER]

The bank has 20 freezers packed with donor milk. After moms drop it off, the bank processes it.

URBANSKI: We do bacteriological screening. And we pool the milk to make sure that there’s at least three to five moms and every single batch. Then we pasteurize after pasteurization, we do in house drug testing.

Then, the milk goes up for purchase. A lot of hospitals buy donor milk to use in the NICU. Many medically fragile babies can’t handle formula. Jinnie Hogarth is a nurse who works with the clinical side of things at the milk bank.

HOGARTH: So families that are either in the NICU for clinical concerns like hypoglycemia, or heart disease, or sepsis, but many, many who are premature. They have a really difficult time with digestion. So donor milk and human milk is gentler on those babies’ tummies.

Other parents can purchase the milk, too. It’s not cheap. But many parents are willing to foot the bill.

COX: This is now my third baby. I had my loss in 2016, had a second incident in 2019 and then almost lost my daughter in 2021.

That’s Portia Cox. She first found donor milk after her premie twins were diagnosed with Necrotizing enterocolitis or NEC for short. It’s a rare condition that causes inflammation in the intestines.

COX: He was five days old when he was diagnosed with NEC, he did not make it that night. So, he passed three hours after we were told.

Cox believes that infant formula played a part in her son’s diagnosis. A lot of formulas contain heavily processed ingredients like corn syrup and palm oil. These can be especially hard on preterm babies’ digestive systems. Because of that, some studies link formula to NEC disease.

Last year, Cox ended up in the NICU again with her third baby, Lilly. Because of her experiences with NEC, Cox wanted to avoid formula this time around.

COX: I was not able to supply milk. They were offering me infant formula. I was like no, okay, I've had NEC. It's a no for me.

But after days in the hospital, Lilly wasn’t gaining enough weight. So, Cox agreed to the formula. Four hours later, that baby was also diagnosed with NEC.

COX: She started to hemorrhage. And when I tell you that there’s nothing that can prepare you for that. It's just really, really hard to process.

After that diagnosis, Cox was desperate to find donor milk. The hospital had some on hand, but Lilly didn’t qualify to receive it. The hospital wouldn’t tell Cox where they got the donor milk from, so she took matters into her own hands.

COX: They wouldn't tell me. And I said, 'Well, Google will!'

That’s how Cox found The Mothers’ Milk Bank. It’s not the only place to get donor milk. Many moms have started Facebook groups to share milk informally. But for serious medical cases like Lilly’s, Cox wasn’t taking any chances.

Once Lilly got some donor milk, things started looking up.

COX: It was a slow and steady process with ups and downs. But once I secured the donor milk, it makes all the difference in the world.

Many babies do thrive on infant formula. But there is something different about breast milk. Here’s Jinnie Hogarth again.

JINNIE HOGARTH: Mom's milk has all the immunoreactive cells, it has all the antibodies, lactoferrin, all those growth factors that are helpful for a baby's immune system and growth.

Now, Portia Cox’s daughters are both growing, healthy, and active.

PORTIA COX: And I truly believe it is the benefit of Mother milk. That’s the nutrition it has all the antibodies. We mothers, females, we are made to produce benefactors for our babies. And it’s something you just can't supplement.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Leah Johansen in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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