Blood banks are staples in hospitals, but for some newborns, a more unusual donation can be just as lifesaving: breast milk. To increase the access of the sickest babies to the vital supply, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will soon open the first breast milk bank in the region.
“If you have a hospitalized baby, or a critically ill baby, human milk can be the difference between life and death,” said Diane Spatz, director of CHOP’s lactation program.
For example, breast milk reduces the likelihood of an infant’s developing necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening bowel disease.
“The most powerful intervention we as clinicians have to prevent babies from getting this deadly disease is by putting nothing but human milk in a baby’s belly,” said Spatz.
Unlike formula, breast milk contains antibodies from the mom that protect against disease. Long-chain fatty acids promote proper brain and eye development. And it’s easier for babies to digest.
But not all mothers can pump. Some have had breast surgeries that reduce output; others have been treated for breast cancer. That’s where milk donors can help.
“When we have mothers who have extra milk, or mothers who have infants that have died, we walk the moms through the screening process, but then we have to ship the milk out to Ohio to then purchase the milk back after they have processed it,” said Spatz.
Last year, CHOP sent 35,000 ounces of donated milk to the nearest bank in Ohio. Beginning next summer, the hospital will do its own processing — pasteurizing the milk to kill bacteria — and be the only area bank approved by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.
“Pasteurization does destroy some of the beneficial components of human milk,” said Spatz, “but it retains many of the components that you would not be able to get from an infant’s formula.”
At first the bank will serve CHOP’s critical patients, but Spatz hopes it will become part of the solution to chronic shortages.
“We do believe that in a very short amount of time we might actually be processing so much milk that we will be able to serve other institutions in our area,” she said.
Milk donors do not receive financial compensation.
“This is an altruistic thing that mothers do,” said Spatz, who has been with CHOP for more than a decade. “It is so meaningful for them because they know that their milk is giving life to other children, and helping countless other babies.”