PEORIA — Nyssa Catton estimates she’s donated over 4,000 ounces of milk in the last seven months. That’s more than 31 gallons of human milk.
There’s the mother who makes two-hour, round-trip drives to pick up milk. “I try to make sure I have between 250 and 300 ounces whenever she comes,” Catton says.
There’s the woman whose medically-necessary, breast-reduction surgery made her unable to breast feed.
“She was the second mom I donated to,” Catton says. “It’s definitely been an eye-opener to hear why so many moms are struggling, to hear all the different reasons they need extra help.”
And there’s OSF Saint Francis Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit, which goes through about 10,000 ounces of donated breast milk a year. For babies born at less than 3 pounds, mother’s milk isn’t just food, it’s medicine that lowers the risk of deadly complications. If mothers can’t produce enough milk, donated milk is the next best option.
While selfless donations to neo-natal intensive care units have been the mother’s milk, so to speak, of not-for-profit milk banks for a century, what women like Catton choose to do with their excess milk is becoming the business of breast milk.
Increasingly, it’s sold on the private market at going rates of $1 to $2.50 an ounce. Catton admits making a profit has crossed her mind but the practice “leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
Mothers’ Milk: Moms donate to help babies
A developing niche of for-profit companies and bio-technology ventures, along with rising sales between private buyers and sellers, is converging to create competition and shortages in a market built on altruism and charity.
Not-for-profit milk banks charge hospitals $4 to $5 an ounce to cover costs of screening donors and processing milk. Insurers typically don’t cover the cost to hospitals.
Catton is part of a private, online central Illinois breast-feeding network of close to 2,000 Facebook members who coordinate mom-to-mom milk sharing. She’s not sure how many mothers she has donated to, though she guesses about 20.
Women often contact St. Francis asking if they can donate milk to the neonatal intensive care unit. Until this month, St. Francis could only tell them to freeze, pack and ship milk themselves to the Colorado-based not-for-profit milk bank that has supplied donated human milk to St. Francis for almost two decades.
St. Francis is now an official drop-off site for breast milk donations. The site, located at St. Francis’ Breastfeeding Resource Center off Pioneer Parkway, is little more than a small freezer in the corner of a small counseling room. But it will make it more convenient for women throughout the area — regardless of their connection to St. Francis — to donate excess breast milk for a good cause with one stipulation. They must meet the screening guidelines set by Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which oversees not-for-profit milk banks in the United States.
St. Francis will ship the milk to Mother’s Milk Bank of Rocky Mountain Children’s Health Foundation of Denver, which collects, processes and dispenses donor human milk to more than 120 hospitals, including St. Francis.
Besides the convenience for mothers, a local drop-off site is also a perk for St. Francis’ long relationship with Mother’s Milk Bank. The hospital’s neo-natal intensive care unit moves up on the priority list when the milk bank makes crucial decisions about where to supply the growing demand for human milk.
“I was thrilled to see St. Francis is a depot now,” says Beth Seidel, a lactation consultant for Pekin Hospital. “It’s a great thing for our community. The idea of packing and shipping yourself can be daunting.”
Seidel has referred prospective donors to an Indiana milk bank in the past. She now plans to refer them to St. Francis exclusively.
“I hope this is the first step to us having our own milk bank,” she says. “The breast-feeding network is strong enough to support one in central Illinois.”
UnityPoint Health-Methodist is considering making donor breast milk available.
When St. Francis began using donated human milk in the neo-natal ICU 17 years ago, there were only seven milk banks in the country, all of them not-for-profit. The Denver milk bank was the closest, says Douglas Drenckpohl, the neo-natal dietitian at St. Francis.
Now there are 16 not-for-profit milk banks in the United States, including banks in Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Michigan and Missouri. St. Francis is the Denver milk bank’s first drop-off site in Illinois.
Illinois’ first not-for-profit milk bank, Mother’s Milk Bank of Western Great Lakes, is scheduled to open by late summer or early fall in Schaumburg. Staff of the joint Illinois-Wisconsin milk bank are already thinking about developing a relationship with St. Francis because of its neo-natal intensive care unit.
“They’re on our list of potential clients,” says Summer Kelly, executive director of the Illinois-Wisconsin milk bank.
The Illinois-Wisconsin milk bank is one of nine new not-for-profit milk banks on the horizon.
The growth coincides with the rising numbers of hospital neo-natal intensive care units using donated human milk when new mothers can’t produce enough.
Though there are only two — soon to be three — for-profit milk banks in the United States, proponents of not-for-profits say the new business model jeopardizes the supply.
“We’re having a big problem with shortages due to competition from the for-profits,” Kelly says. Mom-to-mom sharing also contributes to the shortages, she adds.
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America estimates 4,000 women throughout the country use its milk banks but it would take 60,000 donors to meet the hospital demand nationwide, according to an Associated Press report.
Drenckpohl agrees with the estimate but he interprets them differently.
A majority of mothers can eventually produce enough milk to meet their babies’ needs, he says. But hospitals have to provide encouragement and support.
“Good lactation programs are how you reduce the demand for donor milk,” he says. “Donor breast milk is very good, but mom’s milk is excellent.”
The FDA advises against direct milk sharing between individuals, but that hasn’t stopped the local mom-to-mom sharing network.
“It’s hugely built on trust,” says Meghan Moody, one of about a half dozen administrators of the Central Illinois Breast Feeding Moms Facebook page. With the effort it takes to pump milk to give away, there’s no incentive to be dishonest or untrustworthy, she says.
Catton sees both sides. She says she understands why some mothers would be leery of accepting human milk from a stranger.
For her, it’s the giving that counts.
“If I give it to a milk bank, I know it’s going to babies in the intensive care unit, which is great because I know they’re getting the best start they can,” she says.
“But I also like the way we’re doing it with mom-to-mom sharing. You get to meet the moms, you get to hear why they need the milk and you get to meet their babies and watch them thrive.”
Breastfeeding resource center
The OSF Saint Francis Medical Center’s donation site for breast milk is located at the Breastfeeding Resource Center at OSF Women’s Health Center, 7800 N. Sommer St., in Parkway Plaza, off Pioneer Parkway.
For more information, contact the Breastfeeding Resource Center, 683-6672 or osfhealthcare.org/saint-francis/services/women/breast-milk-donation-site/
Eligibility guidelines to donate milk include:
* No history of hepatitis after age 11 or positive tuberculosis tests
* No history of intimate contact of anyone at risk for HIV/AIDs
* Consume less than 24 ounces of caffeinated beverages a day
* Willing to undergo blood test
* Less than 18 months post-partum when collecting milk
* Willing to donate a minimum of 150 ounces
The Breastfeeding Resource Center also offers feeding evaluations, pump rentals, telephone counseling and a support group that meets noon to 2 p.m. Wednesdays.