Kimberlee Bookhart, a 38-year-old Kansas City mother, is convinced that donated breast milk played an important part in saving her baby's life.
Born three months premature and weighing 1 pound, 1 ounce, Bookhart's baby, Zahra, could fit into the palm of her father's hand.
Because Zahra was born so prematurely, Bookhart had difficulty producing enough breast milk to nourish her, so doctors fed Zahra a special formula while in the hospital. But Zahra soon experienced serious health problems, including necrotizing enterocolitis in which portions of the bowel die, a medical condition often seen in premature infants.
Bookhart thinks the formula partly contributed to Zahra's failing health. Believing in the powerful benefits of breast milk, Bookhart contacted the Mothers' Milk Bank in Colorado. She now receives regular shipments of donated breast milk. Zahra, now 7 months old, is still in the hospital, but doctors say she is going to be fine.
"Milk banks have been a lifesaver in our case," said Bookhart.
Although milk banks have become increasingly popular for mothers and fathers, there is no federal regulation governing the donating and distributing of human milk. The only state-regulated milk banks are in California and New York, where donor milk banks must be licensed tissue banks and are regulated by the state Health Department.
To address the regulatory situation, the Food and Drug Administration held an informational session Dec. 6, where advisers weighed in on the safety, risks and needed regulation for the collection, screening, processing and distribution of human milk.
The meeting came on the heels of an FDA warning issued last week about what it believes are the risks -- including contamination and the spread of illness -- of feeding a baby breast milk from a source other than its mother.
For many donors, though, the act of giving milk has become a moral imperative.
"Once I knew that I had plenty of milk for my little guy and enough to share, I became a donor," said Giarratano, a 29-year-old high school science teacher from Littleton, Colo.
Now, once Giarratano finishes breastfeeding her 5-month-old son, Lucca, she tries to pump a little extra and tosses it in the freezer. A Mothers' Milk Bank representative picks it up and brings it to the milk bank, where it is processed and shipped off to a baby in need.
"If I'm able to help a baby who needs breast milk. I can't imagine not helping when it's so easy," said Giarratano. "I plan on continuing to donate for a year, or the duration of my breastfeeding."
Health organizations have long encouraged mothers to breastfeed their newborn babies. Breast milk provides antibodies against pathogens, and has been associated with reduced morbidity and mortality from gastrointestinal, respiratory and other diseases.
But what if a child is adopted? Or the baby is born premature and the mother cannot produce enough milk? Or has had a mastectomy?
In cases like these, human milk banks have been a godsend for women.