When Dr. Jackie Redmer’s twins were born seven weeks early in October, she wasn’t able to produce enough breast milk to feed both babies.

She bought pasteurized donor milk as a supplement while the girls spent five weeks at Meriter Hospital’s newborn intensive care unit. Then she switched to “raw” donor milk.

“Breast milk is the best thing for any baby, especially preemies,” said Redmer, a family medicine doctor with UW Health.

Use of donor breast milk is growing in the Madison area — where mothers exchange it, a birth center sells it, Meriter’s NICU soon will provide it, clinics ship it out of state for processing and a group plans to process it nearby.

Some of the milk is pasteurized for use in premature babies and some is given raw to healthy babies.

Either way, donors are tested for viruses such as hepatitis and HIV. They’re not paid, and they help mothers who want to feed their babies breast milk but don’t produce enough.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said last year that premature babies should get pasteurized donor breast milk instead of formula if their mothers don’t have adequate supply.

Breast milk lowers rates of bloodstream infections and intestinal tissue problems, the academy said.

That led Meriter and other hospitals to change policies in their neonatal intensive care units. More clinics are setting up depots to collect milk and ship it to banks for pasteurization, including one that opened last month at Wildwood Clinic in Cottage Grove.

Meanwhile, the age-old custom of mothers sharing raw breast milk — curtailed by the AIDS epidemic — has re-emerged through organizations such as the Madison-based Mothers’ Milk Alliance.

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The alliance, like the depots and banks that pasteurize breast milk, screens donors through blood tests and questionnaires.

Since Redmer brought her twins home, she’s been obtaining raw donor milk through the alliance. Eliza and Hazel, who continue to get a mix of donor milk and Redmer’s milk, are thriving at more than 11 pounds each.

“I’m sure the donor milk contributed to their healthy start in life,” she said.

Meriter to provide donor milk

Redmer initially bought pasteurized donor milk from the Madison Birth Center. The Middleton-based midwifery practice has collected and sold donor milk since 2007, said executive director Amie Gieseke.

The birth center sends frozen donor milk to the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Ohio, where it is thawed, pooled, pasteurized, tested and frozen again for use in premature or ill babies.

The Ohio bank is one of 11 banks that process donor breast milk in the U.S., according to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.

Donors take blood tests for hepatitis B and C, HIV, syphilis and a virus called HTLV. They can’t smoke, drink much alcohol or take most medications and must meet other criteria.

Gieseke said the birth center buys milk from the bank and sells it at cost: $16.50 for a 3-ounce bottle. The expense comes from the processing and donor screening.
By this summer, Meriter’s NICU plans to provide pasteurized donor milk at no extra cost for the smallest babies and those with special needs, said Dare Desnoyers, NICU nurse manager.

The goal is to expand the practice to all NICU babies by the end of next year. Meriter plans to buy the milk from the Ohio bank or the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank.

A mother’s own milk will remain the first choice, Desnoyers said. But if supply is inadequate, the back-up will be donor milk instead of formula, she said.

St. Mary’s Hospital allows mothers to bring in pasteurized or raw donor milk, spokesman Steve Van Dinter said. The hospital is looking at providing pasteurized donor milk or making it available for purchase, he said.

Dr. Jill Mallory said she opened the depot at Wildwood to help meet the rising demand at NICUs. A freezer stores the milk before it is shipped to the Indiana bank.

“I have a lot of moms with a lot of extra milk,” Mallory said. “They needed a more convenient location for drop-off.”

Dr. Anne Eglash has collected donor milk at her UW Health clinic in Mount Horeb since 2005. She sent the milk to the Ohio bank until 2011 then switched to the Indiana bank.

Bank to process milk nearby

Eglash and others are planning to set up the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes to process milk closer to Wisconsin. It might be in the Chicago area or near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, she said.

The group is also trying to expand the number of depots around Wisconsin that send milk to the Indiana bank, which is helping them establish their bank.

A depot recently opened at Aspirus Hospital in Wausau, where pasteurized donor milk is also used in the NICU, said Dr. Julie Luks, director of Aspirus Women’s Health.

Other depots are planned in La Crosse, Oshkosh and the Milwaukee area, Eglash said.

Meanwhile, the Mothers Milk Alliance is growing, said Ingrid Andersson, a nurse midwife who started the raw breast milk exchange in 2007.

The alliance organizes about 25 donor milk swaps at five locations in the Madison area each week, Andersson said. There is no fee for the milk, but a suggested donation of $100 helps cover donor screening costs.

Pasteurization is important for fragile babies, but raw milk is better for healthy babies because it has more nutrients, Andersson said.