The suburbs have plenty of reasons to celebrate breast-feeding this Mother’s Day.
The suburbs are home to a mom who donated more than 127 gallons of her breast milk to set a new Guinness World Record. Altruistic moms throughout the suburbs respond to the deaths of their babies by donating their breast milk to help save the lives of other needy infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which strongly advocates breast-milk donation, calls Elk Grove Village home.
What our area doesn’t have, and desperately needs, is a milk bank, says Schaumburg’s Jennifer Anderson, executive director of Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes. Currently, all the breast milk donated by women throughout the agency’s territory across Illinois and Wisconsin must be shipped to a milk bank in Indianapolis, where it is pasteurized and must make a return trip before it can be used in Chicago-area hospitals.
“As a public health person, I will change that,” vows Anderson, a 33-year-old lactation consultant with years of experience in nonprofit administration. A mother of two who produced more breast milk than her babies needed, Anderson knew that her breast milk could offer lifesaving nutrition to premature babies with immature digestive systems.
“I wanted to donate, and I couldn’t find anywhere where I could do that,” remembers Anderson, who used her extra supply instead to make mashed potatoes for her youngsters. “When I saw there was no milk bank in Chicago, I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous.'”
So did Lincolnshire mom Marissa Grossenback, who wanted to donate her extra breast milk and discovered the Human Milk Banking Association of North America didn’t have a milk bank in Illinois. “All right then, I’ll start one,” promised Grossenback, a program manager for a software company.
The two suburban woman joined forces with Summer Kelly, a registered nurse who opened the state’s first drop-off breast-milk depot at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge. The nonprofit agency they formed now boasts an additional suburban milk depot drop-off site in Oak Park and last month opened one at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin. The group hopes to open a milk bank, which would screen donors for diseases and pasteurize the milk, and is eyeing a potential location in Vernon Hills as it continues fundraising.
A donor mom uses a pump to extract her breast milk, freezes her collections and drops them at a milk depot. A local milk bank means that “the milk we collect in Illinois and Wisconsin will be processed here and sent right back to the hospitals in our region,” Kelly says.
“Why isn’t breast milk provided by hospitals just like blood is?” says Grossenback, 36, chairwoman of the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes. “We have an amazing gift we can provide.”
While breast milk is recommended for all babies, the nutritious liquid can be a literal lifesaver for babies with health issues, especially premature and underweight babies, says Dr. Krystal Revai, a pediatrician who serves as the state’s breast-feeding coordinator for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“For premature babies, one of the biggest risks is the development of necrotizing enterocolitis,” Revai says.
Babies with necrotizing enterocolitis suffer from the death of intestinal tissue, might need extensive surgery and sometimes die. Breast milk helps prevent the condition, but the mothers of premature babies often haven’t produced milk yet because of the early birth. Just a few ounces of donor breast milk can help prevent costly surgeries, saving lives and about $11 million a year in health care costs in Illinois, Anderson says.
But some people balk at the idea of a woman donating breast milk to someone else’s baby.
“Breast milk has lost its status as something that was shared,” Revai says. Generations ago, lactating women often fed a sister’s baby, a cousin’s baby or even a neighbor’s baby, the doctor says. Many royal families employed a “wet nurse,” who would breast-feed a young prince or princess.
“There is an ‘ick’ factor in milk sharing, but that’s something we’ve imposed because of the sexualization of breasts,” says Revai, who breast-fed her daughter.
“We drink donated milk every day,” notes Kelly, 36, a mother of two boys. “It just happens to come from a barnyard animal.”
Donation is easy and safe, Anderson says. As is done with blood donors, milk donors are tested for HIV, syphilis, viruses and forms of hepatitis, and then the milk is tested and pasteurized. There are no cases of diseases being passed through pasteurized breast milk, Anderson says.
Bolingbrook’s Amelia Boomker set the Guinness World Record for breast-milk donation by gifting 16,321 fluid ounces of milk between 2008 and 2013. Add the 7,000 ounces she donated before the current recording process, and the 36-year-old mother of four has given more than 182 gallons.
“I don’t think breast-milk donation is any more personal than blood donations,” Boomker says. “If you have more than you need, share the bounty.”
Hoffman Estates police officer Lisa Koenen stockpiled her excess breast milk after her daughter, Melinda, was born prematurely on Aug. 10, 2009, and weighed just 2 pounds, 4½ ounces.
“She was a fighter and fought for almost 7 months,” say Koenen, who pumped and froze her breast milk and later donated it to the Indiana milk bank. “When she died, that was one of the first things I did because I had a freezer full.”
Koenen, 44, a volunteer with the March of Dimes, says she finds comfort in knowing that the 8 gallons of milk she donated helped many other babies.
“To me, it means my daughter was here for a reason,” says Koenen, who has three older children. “She made a difference in the world.”
Milk banks require a minimum donation of 100 ounces because of the cost associated with screening, but grieving mothers are allowed to donate smaller amounts. “We’ll go to the hospital and pick it up,” Anderson says.
“If they really understood how it really is a matter of life and death, I think that will open people’s eyes,” Kelly says. “We have a lot of work to do to raise the awareness of the importance of breast-milk donations.”
In addition to helping premature babies, breast milk can be used to help other babies and even adults with digestive issues, Revai says.
“There’s no political hoopla. People think this is about breast-feeding, and it’s really not,” Anderson says. “This is about hospitals having the medication.”