Human milk for human babies: Best nutrition but hard to get

WILMINGTON, NC (WSFX) – Medical experts push for breastfeeding.  Moms have even protested over it.  But why is breast milk so hard to access for those who can't pump and have healthy babies at birth?

There's so much to write and talk about concerning breast milk these days.  First of all, medical professionals will tell you that human milk is best for human babies.

"It has a lot of infection-fighting properties," said Sheri Carroll, neonatologist with Coastal Carolina Neonatology in Wilmington.

Gigi Lawless is a milk lactation expert at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.  She says you can really see how breast milk helps sick babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In fact, recently, NHRMC just beefed up its breastfeeding program, adding additional full-time staff members to the cause.  "It's the perfect nutrition for your baby," said Lawless.

"Moms are smarter now, I think," said Susan Evans, the director of WakeMed's Mothers' Milk Bank in Raleigh.  WakeMed's milk bank is the most established milk bank on the East Coast and one of 10 in the country.  Thousands of babies have benefited from the program.

Across the board, it seems the medical standard is to encourage breastfeeding and promote breast milk.  Evans says more moms are educating themselves on the nutritional value of human milk.  The antibodies in human milk outweigh the benefits of formula.  Simply put, human milk is designed for human babies.  Cows milk can be also found in formula, and sometimes babies cannot tolerate it.

Julie Geurink found that out, even though she and her husband were planning on giving their twin sons breast milk.  Doctors still don't know why the Geurinks delivered weeks early, but because of it, Julie's body was not mature enough to start producing milk.  Right away, they relied on the help of donors.

"I relied pretty heavily on donor milk after the first two to three weeks of their lives," said Julie Geurink.  "It was like giving life to my sons—in some way, like a transplant."

Hospitals often use donor milk for cases like the Geurink family.  Evans says working moms tend to be the biggest donors to the milk bank–women who just have extra milk and want to help out.

Once it gets to the milk bank, it goes through a process of getting separated into batches and then pasteurized.  It's a process handled by Evans and another worker, and then it's sent to the lab for testing.  If the batch is good, it's sent to hospitals and occasionally other people who need it.

Each month, Wake med spends about $6,000 to collect and ship milk.  The bank collects nearly 24,000 ounces a month and ships out about 20,000 ounces.  Still, the demand is too high, and the priority goes to mostly babies with special needs, like the Geurinks twins.

That need to prioritize is understood, but that just makes it harder for some women – with healthy babies – to also give their child the best nutrition.

"We just don't have the milk for that," said Evans.

That's where moms like Jenny Hanson come into the picture.  She had complained to one of her friends about having too much milk.  Her friend asked her to help another mom who couldn't make enough milk.

"I thought about it," said Hanson.  "I had never done anything like that before.  I heard about it so I talked to my husband."

Now Hanson pumps for her baby daughter and someone else's baby.

"I think it's so funny," said Hanson.  "People think it's so gross, but I'm like, 'You're drinking cow fluid if you're drinking cow's milk,' which I do."

When people make an arrangement like that, it's called informal milk sharing.  And though Hanson is healthy, medical professional can't officially stand behind the idea.

"It's probably not safe to have an informal agreement," said Carroll.

"A lot of the moms who are sharing their milk on the Internet think, 'Well I seem to be healthy,' said Evans.  "But every once in a while we screen somebody--in fact just recently, we had somebody that was HIV positive.  She was negative during her pregnancy, but you just never know what you can be exposed to."

Hanson realizes the risks, too.  "She has to trust that I don't have any diseases," she said.  "She has to trust that I'm taking good care of the milk."

Hanson is sharing her milk out of the goodness of her heart.  She's not selling any online.  The only perk she gets is that the mom she's donating to provides her with bags to store the milk.  But since she's feeding her own baby too, she does whatever she can to stay healthy and be careful.  Without moms like her, some say they wouldn't get breast milk at all.

There's not enough at the milk bank and what is available, is $5 an ounce.

"The average family cannot afford donor milk," said Evans.  The fee may seem astounding to some mothers, but there is reason behind it.  Evans says the fee comes from paying for the pasteurizing equipment, the lab work and shipping, among other things.  The milk bank is a non-profit organization.

With the need so high and the demand where it is, a lot of families simply don't have access to human milk.

"It is a problem, you're right," said Evans.  "I don't know what the solution is."

Evans also said WakeMed might see more donors if they didn't have to compete against moms who sell or give away their milk, but as you can imagine, that is like answering the legendary question of the chicken or the egg.

Breastfeeding continues to be a priority in hospitals.  New Hanover Regional Medical Center just beefed up its breastfeeding program by adding additional staff.  In November 2011, the hospital went from one full-time lactation consultants to six.

"The hospital has really made breastfeeding an initiative," said Lawless.  She says peer-to-peer sharing is not something new, it's just that more education is coming out.

There are several websites and efforts to get more people to consider informal sharing.  A popular one is Human Milk 4 Human Babies.

If you'd like to donate milk to the WakeMed Mothers' Milk Bank, contact the hospital at 919-350-8599.  You can also email Sue Evans or go online to the hospital's website.

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