CHAMPAIGN — Doctors say newborns should be breast-fed for better health outcomes, but sometimes a mother's own milk isn't available to do the job.
Next month, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District will make it more convenient for other nursing mothers to come to the rescue, especially for some of the most vulnerable babies who spend their first days and weeks in the hospital.
The district plans to open a breast-milk depot June 20 at its Champaign headquarters at 201 W. Kenyon Road that will serve as a drop-off site for screened and approved breast-milk donors.
Those donors will be able to drop off their extra breast milk, and the health district will freeze it and send it to the nonprofit Indiana Mothers' Milk Bank, which pasteurizes and distributes donor breast milk throughout the Midwest.
Most of that donor milk goes to premature and ill babies in neonatal intensive-care units, because they have the greatest need for it, said Heather Ludwig, a nutritionist and lactation consultant for the health district.
"It's like medicine," she said. "It can make such a difference for these little bitty ones."
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of a baby's life. Breast-feeding has been associated with a reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome, along with less risk of respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal-tract infections, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and ear and throat infections.
In the absence of a mother's own milk, pasteurized donor milk still provides the optimal nutrition, immune protection and growth factors babies need and is easily digested, according to the Indiana Mothers' Milk Bank.
There are many reasons new mothers can't always supply breast milk, or enough breast milk, for their newborns, said Carissa Hawkins, communications coordinator for that organization.
A mom may be hospitalized herself or suffering from the stress or trauma of labor. Sometimes, premature or ill babies are unable to nurse, "and a pump is not a perfect substitute for a baby's mouth," Hawkins said.
David Oprondek, a dietician at Carle's NICU, said some babies in that unit are transported to Carle from outside the area, and their mothers aren't necessarily on hand every day to supply their own breast milk.
But the main reason Carle's NICU uses donor breast milk is to help avoid the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, a serious gastrointestinal disease for which premature infants are at increased risk, he said.
Ludwig said many breast-feeding mothers in the community tend to keep a stash of extra pumped breast milk in their freezers, and regard it as precious, especially in those early months when they're concerned they might not have enough or they're returning to work. But as their babies begin to eat solid food, they get a little less protective about their frozen milk supply and are willing to share the extra with babies in need.
Several of these moms have contacted the health district looking for ways to donate, she said. Sometimes, willing donors have suffered the heartbreaking loss of their own babies, and are looking for ways to share the breast milk they have in the freezer or are still pumping.
Michele Trueblood, 29, of Monticello said one of the reasons she plans to become a breast-milk donor is she knows what it's like to have a child in a NICU herself.
Trueblood's younger son, Mason, recently celebrated his first birthday, but he was hospitalized in a Peoria NICU for 25 days after being born with a life-threatening condition called persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn, or PPHN, she said.
"I know that when my son was in the NICU, that other babies that were there with him at the same time, they benefitted from donor breast milk," she said.
One of Trueblood's coworkers also donated breast milk to a family who adopted a child.
"It hit home, because I'm adopted," she said.
Trueblood, a teacher at Carrie Busey Elementary School, said making milk donations would be more difficult without the new public health milk depot opening.
That's generally the case for most busy moms with babies, because they often lack the time to package milk, buy the dry ice and do the mailing on top of their other responsibilities, Hawkins said. That's why she says the new milk depot in Champaign is so important.
"We generally see an increase in donors where a depot opens up," she said.
Women interested in becoming milk donors will need to fill out applications and undergo blood screenings, the cost of which will be covered by the Indiana Mothers' Milk Bank.
Donors must be non-smokers and willing to donate 100 ounces before their baby's first birthday, and certain forms of medications they take may exclude them from eligibility.
Breast milk can be donated from mothers of babies and toddlers who are up to 2 years old, and the milk can be either fresh or frozen. The health district will ship it to Indiana packed in dry ice, with the milk bank covering all the district's costs, including the purchase of the milk-storage freezer, Ludwig said.
By the numbers
9 million: The number of additional ounces per year the Human Milk Banking Association of North America estimates is needed annually for babies in U.S. neonatal intensive care units.
1/2 to 1: The number of ounces of milk a premature infant in a NICU can go through per feeding every 2-3 hours.
200: The number of liters of donor breast milk Carle obtains per year for its neonatal intensive care unit through the Mothers' Milk Bank Colorado.
$4.50: The charge per ounce for donor breast milk through the Indiana Mothers' Milk Bank, and it's entirely for processing costs.