Milk banks all across the country are hard at work getting donated breast milk out into the community.
“We process, test, and pasteurize that milk,” said Rebecca Heinrich, director of Mother’s Milk Bank at the Rocky Mountain Children’s Health Foundation. She said, “Ultimately the problem here is the formula recall has caused this spiraling cascade effect of shortages across the nation.”
Traditionally, a source of milk for hospitals and medically fragile babies, Heinrich says the bank is getting more interest from the border community.
“Donor human milk banks have never been intended as a substitute for formula. Really, the formula is a substitute for human milk. So this is a new situation for us,” she said.
The increase in demand has reportedly made things tight at milk banks across the nation. A Mother’s Milk Bank in Colorado is considered to be one of the largest in the nation.
“We try to run with a lean team, but also be extremely careful and safe with our processing,” Heinrich said.
“Increased staffing where possible,” Lindsay Groff, executive director of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, said. “This demand has caused everyone to step up to the plate.”
The association accredits 30 non-profit milk banks in North America.
“Some milk banks, for instance, if they were processing milk three to four days a week, now they’re doing all five. Or they're adding extra shifts, they’re adding more staff, more volunteers, more people to answer the phones, more people to field emails,” she explained.
Each milk bank takes donations from approved candidates. The milk is processed, tested, pasteurized, and then packaged up for the community. But there are some challenges that could prevent this from being a solution for everyone during this formula shortage.
“There’s only so many lactating people in the world at any given point,” Heinrich said.
The small potential donor pool, along with a shelf life of just a year and the cost of around $4.50 an ounce, can create barriers.
“We do our best to make sure that we keep costs low. But, it is a significant cost that parents may not be expecting,” she said.
The milk bank she works at offers financial aid.
As families continue to look for food for their babies, Children’s Hospital experts recommend using safer options like milk banks, and not online exchanges for breast milk. That’s because milk from a bank goes through a rigorous safety process. Another option is to ask friends or family if they meet certain health qualifications. The experts at Children’s said to be sure that the donor doesn’t take medication or have any viruses that can be transmitted through breast milk.
“Ensuring donor milk is safe always takes time,” Groff said.
Heinrich said the banks will continue to do what they can for the community until this shortage ends.
“The more milk that we can pasteurize the more milk we’ll have available for the community,” she said. “We’re just taking it one day at a time right now.”
For more information on milk banks closest to you, or to learn how to donate, visit the Human Milk Banking Association of North America’s website.