Local Moms Work Together To Donate Much Needed Breast Milk

Jun 26, 2013

Breastmilk donor Jessica Ventura Ewing feeding her own daughter, Savannah.
Credit Sarah Perry

Chances are you've heard of local food movements. They've swept the nation over the past few years as communities work to raise and grow food for their own consumption. But one rather imperative human food staple that you may not have thought too much about is one that is a necessity for the youngest members of communities: breast milk.

When a newborn enters this world, the question of what the infant will eat may seem obvious. Albuquerque midwife Barbara Pepper has delivered thousands of babies over the decades.  "It's such a natural thing to breast feed babies," she says, "and breast milk is important. It has good things that really help support the immune system."

Recently the Center for Disease Control went on record saying that breast-fed children are more resistant to disease and infection early on in life, while later they're less likely to suffer from diseases like diabetes. Not to mention that a slew of hormones are released that help women recover from childbirth when milk flows freely.

"A lot of our moms are real milk machines, they are dairy queens," says Pepper. "They're awesome!"

But what happens, when for whatever reason, a new mother, can't make enough milk? Pepper says some women don't produce enough milk for their babies. "And it was painful in some ways, emotionally," she explains.

Enter the need for supplementation, like formula. "You have to pick and choose what supplementation to use," Pepper says. "There's soy based, there's goat's milk and then lacto, you know milk."

Milk, as in human milk. But how do you get ahold of human breast milk? That's where the local food movement comes in. Pepper says those dairy queens, whose milk flows like a faucet, are a good source. She says some woman really feel empowered  and want to share.

Informal milk sharing happens at places like the Dar A Luz Birth and Health Center. Whitney Alfaro is a fairly new mother, who doesn't make enough milk to feed her 7-month-old baby girl, Hunter. "They call it insufficient glandular tissue or hypoplasia," she says. "It's where you don't have enough breast tissue to make milk."

As a registered nurse, Alfaro knows her baby needs to drink between 20 and 30 ounces of milk a day, minimum. But she only produces three ounces a day. "It's a weird place to decide if you want to take donor milk from other people," she says. "I have a friend that breast feeds and she gives me milk when she has extra. I know her and she shared her medical records with me."

However in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, where pre-mature and sick babies are hospitalized, an unregulated milk sharing system would never fly, even though breast milk has been shown to be what's best for these vulnerable babies.

"Their guts don't work the same way as babies that are born at term," says Abigail Eaves, both a certified nurse midwife as well as the executive director of the Dar A Luz Birth and Health Center.  "And so, especially preemies, when they have milk that is not human milk they tend to have more problems. So using human milk in neonatal intensive care units is really important." 

Up until recently, local hospitals like Lovelace and University of New Mexico hospitals in Albuquerque didn't offer human breast milk in the NICU.  But within the last few years, that's changed. Alfaro got the idea for Dar A Luz to become a human milk depot for the Denver Mothers' Milk Bank, which is a member of the Human Milk Banking  Association of North America which supplies hospital neonatal intensive care units.

"You can get babies out of the hospital one to two weeks earlier," Alfaro explains, "if they have donor milk or breast milk from their mom. So it's a cost saving measure for hospitals, but also a health measure to babies."

Unlike the informal milk sharing, this system is highly regulated. Donors go through a screening process to ensure that they aren't on any herbs or medications and that their blood is free from things like hepatitis and HIV. Then, if they pass, they can donate their milk at the center.  Dar A Luz then ships it to a large milk bank in Denver where it's pasteurized before it's shipped back out to regional hospitals like Lovelace and UNMH. 

"So let's say they have a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit," Alfaro describes the process. "A doctor will write a prescription for breast milk, just like it's medicine. Then they'll overnight that milk from the milk bank and the baby has it that way."

Whitney's hope is to one day start a center certified by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America where the milk can be pasteurized in Albuquerque, so that it doesn't have to go to Denver first. Barbara Pepper hopes that that day comes sooner rather than later.

"It's kind of crazy, you know! We outsource so many things," Pepper sighs. "We can certainly have a machine here in New Mexico if we are going to be a real food bank!"

For now, it's a matter of securing grants and finances to get the necessary equipment and infrastructure up and running. Meanwhile, the Dar A Luz Birth and Health Center held a milk donation drive recently with a goal of collecting 1,000 ounces of human breast milk.  Jessica Ventura Ewing handed over several bags of the creamy nectar that she had pumped. 

"I just gave them 39 ounces, my whole freezer," Jessica laughs. "Other moms need it and we can't use all the milk that we have, so it's exciting."   

Right now the Dar A Luz Birth and Health Center is the only place in New Mexico where mothers can drop off donated breast milk.  So far, they've collected over 1400 ounces.