Twins Hudson and Clayton, born April 5 at St. Charles Bend, marked babies No. 4 and No. 5 for Jen West.
But even West, a seasoned veteran when it comes to breastfeeding, couldn’t keep up with the demands of two infants at once — infants born prematurely at 35 weeks, no less. Before the 34-year-old Bend mom could even ask for help, staff in the neonatal intensive care unit offered donated breast milk from the hospital’s stash.
West, who’s avoiding formula at all costs, said the staff saved her from the awkward situation of having to ask for milk.
“I never felt like I was begging for it,” she said.
NICUs like those in St. Charles Bend and Redmond maintain freezers full of donated breast milk. Since mothers’ bodies aren’t always ready to produce milk if their babies are born early, extra breast milk is essential, as it’s the only thing premature infants can easily digest.
Advocates in Central Oregon hope to ramp up donations and teach locals about the importance of donating at a May 31 drive at Central Oregon Locavore in Bend.
It’s not uncommon for women to give away leftover breast milk from their freezers or sell it on websites like Craigslist or Only The Breast, but doing so often doesn’t include testing the milk for harmful bacteria or the donor for unknown infections or medications that could be transmitted to the infant.
“We call it the black market of milk,” said Nicole Timm, a lactation nurse at St. Charles.
The safer option, Timm said, is to donate excess milk to milk banks, which pasteurize it, check it for bacteria and screen donors beforehand. This past summer, Oregon’s first milk bank, Northwest Mothers Milk Bank, opened in Portland and has been working hard to build capacity. Before that, the closest bank was Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose, Calif.
St. Charles works with both banks, and locals can always bring donations to St. Charles Bend or Redmond, which will ship them to the banks.
The Portland bank has significantly reduced the cost of shipping the milk, which used to have to go to and from San Jose overnight, Timm said.
“Having a closer facility is saving resources on a pretty big scale,” she said.
After their babies spent more than three weeks in the hospital, West and her husband, Kevin, took the twins home April 30. Hudson and Clayton had both gained more than a pound since birth, and West said they seemed to be developing normally — thanks in part to donated breast milk.
“It was really nice knowing they were able to get what I was not able to produce for them until I was able to get caught up,” she said.
New bank in Portland
The results from this month’s breast milk drive — the first to be held in Bend — will go to Mothers Milk Bank in San Jose, as that bank recently put out a call for milk and has provided lots of milk to Central Oregon in the past.
Northwest Mothers Milk Bank still is growing, but likely will be the beneficiary of future milk drives in Central Oregon, Timm said.
Joanne Ransom, clinical director of the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank, said the bank is constantly screening donors and processing milk to meet the demands of NICUs across Oregon and Washington state. The idea is to prevent hospitals from needing to send donations far away for processing and then having them shipped all the way back.
After it opened, the Portland milk bank was inundated with donations and processed more milk in its first four months than leaders expected to in the first year, Ransom said.
“We were working long hours day and night pulling in all our resources because the demand skyrocketed very quickly,” she said.
The Northwest Mothers Milk Bank takes potential donors through a rigorous screening process starting with a phone interview in which the staff member can learn about their health histories.
After that, the format is a lot like blood donations in that donors must have healthy lifestyles. They can’t smoke, for example. Some medications, such as those for high blood pressure, would also preclude someone from being able to donate. Then, finally, there’s a blood test, which looks for things like HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Once they’re approved and the donations come in, the bank pasteurizes the milk and then tests it.
“It’s a pretty involved process,” Ransom said, “and it has to be tightly controlled and measured for it to be effective.”
‘Must, must, must’ have milk
All that paperwork felt daunting to Bend resident Trisda Field when she first donated her excess milk to St. Charles in August 2012. Still, she said, it’s worth it knowing her milk went to vulnerable infants and their families.
“The feeling of donating is one of the best things you could do,” she said.
Field’s decision to donate was prompted by her own experience of losing a baby at 15 weeks in February 2011.
“I decided at that point that if I had any future babies, I wanted to donate any surplus milk I produced to help preemie babies,” she said, “so that another mom didn’t have to lose her baby if it was preventable, and that I could make a difference in their lives.”
Field has since donated more than 3,000 ounces of breast milk over the course of two births. Her daughters were born in July 2012 and November 2013. She also has a son who was born in June 2004.
Back in 2004, Field didn’t know milk donation existed, although she wishes she would have. At the time, she had trouble producing milk, and had to put her son on formula when he was 10 months old, a move she said was “heartbreaking.”
“I think that’s another reason why I’ve been so adamant about donating is to help women who don’t want to have to use formula provide another way that they can give their children breast milk,” Field said.
Research has shown that babies who are fed formula have higher rates of allergies, ear infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, diabetes, cancer and obesity, Timm said. Formula is made mostly of cow’s milk proteins, which are larger than human milk proteins. Since an infant’s gut is delicate and porous, cow’s milk proteins can irritate the lining and cause inflammation, she said.
“Human milk is perfectly suited to a human baby’s tummy, and it actually soothes and protects and closes the gut lining so it can protect itself from bacteria or other things that are not good for the body,” Timm said.
Prominent medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend feeding babies breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life, and then a mixture of breast milk and solid foods until age 2.
Very premature infants are still supposed to be drinking amniotic fluid and getting nutrition through umbilical cords, said Marion Rice, executive director of the Breastfeeding Coalition of Oregon.
“And now we have to feed them, oh my goodness, what are we going to feed them?” she said. “So we must, must, must have donor milk.”
For-profit milk banking
The nonprofit milk donation community may face competition from a new form of milk collection: for-profit milk banking.
Mother’s Milk Cooperative opened a few months ago in Lake Oswego. It’s a for-profit milk bank that pays moms $1 per ounce of milk — after they donate the initial 100 ounces necessary to cover the cost of screening donors — and sells the milk for about $3.60 an ounce.
Adrianne Weir, the bank’s CEO, said despite their financial structures, all milk banks have the same goal: to raise awareness about the need for donor milk, thereby ensuring access to more infants in need. She emphasized that only a small proportion of infants who need donated milk actually receive it.
“To me, comparing milk bank to milk bank, profit versus non-profit and this price versus that price — all that stuff, it’s all politics that shouldn’t be part of the conversation,” Weir said. “The most important thing that any of us can do is build a community to rally around milk banking to meet the unmet need and actually make a dramatic change in outcomes for babies in the NICU and for families who just want to bring home a health baby.”
Regardless, those in the nonprofit realm are skeptical. Blood banks don’t pay for blood; it’s a gift, said Rice, of the Breastfeeding Coalition of Oregon.
“We don’t pay for tissue,” she said. “If you are giving an organ, you don’t buy that heart. If you’re a child and you need a kidney, you don’t buy that kidney.”
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), a membership organization whose guidelines govern more than 20 milk banks, issued a statement declaring its opposition to for-profit milk banking. Women donate milk for altruistic reasons rather than personal gain, the group said.
“(HMBANA) does not condone, and in fact, questions the practice of buying and selling human milk as a commodity,” the statement reads. “Introducing the profit motive could put the infant of the lactating mother at risk if she feels pressure to provide a certain volume of milk to a bank or a recipient rather than feeding her own infant.”
Oregon boasted the third-highest breastfeeding rate in the country behind Idaho and California last year, when 90.2 percent of women surveyed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported having ever breastfed.
With that tradition of breastfeeding comes moms helping other moms through sharing milk, Rice said.
Preterm babies are medically fragile, and often their moms can’t produce enough milk to support them right away, she said.
“But she knows another mom is going to help her,” Rice said. “That’s powerful, and that’s the energy that’s happening in Central Oregon that should be celebrated.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0304,