When Elizabeth Schmid gave birth to triplets, she was able to give them everything except the one thing they needed most — breast milk.
Born three months prematurely, Bridget, Caroline and Jamie weighed no more than 2 pounds each. Very little and very sick, the three girls needed expert care and the best nutrition to survive.
Luckily, they got both.
Doctors provided the care, and nursing mothers with too much milk for their own children provided the lifesaving nutrition.
Seven months later, Bridget, Caroline and Jamie are happy, healthy little girls. And their mom is thankful for both the good care they received early in life and for the breast milk selflessly donated by other mothers — even though they didn't know Schmid and had no connection to Schmid.
"This was a wonderful gift that these women gave to our sick babies," said Schmid.
The donated milk came from Mother's Milk Bank of Iowa in Iowa City, about two hours away from Schmid's home in Dubuque. The milk bank — one of six in the United States — collects, pasteurizes, stores and distributes human breast milk to babies in need.
Pediatrician Ekhard Ziegler, medical director and co-founder of the bank, says he started it because he wanted all babies — and especially ones born prematurely — to have the benefits of breast milk.
"I knew that many mothers of premature babies either couldn't provide breast milk at all or tried and couldn't provide enough," said Ziegler. "In our hospital, premature babies have the benefit of getting mother's breast milk when the mom cannot give milk themselves."
There are many reasons why breast milk is ideal for infants: It's easy to digest, it strengthens a baby's immunity against infection and disease, and it promotes the growth of developing bones and tissue.
Babies in Need
Schmid is just one of many mothers who rely on donated breast milk for their babies' nutrition.
Most often, recipient mothers are those whose milk hasn't come in after having a preterm baby or who have given birth to multiple preterm babies and don't have enough milk.
Some recipient moms may be too ill to breast-feed themselves because they are undergoing chemotherapy or have life-threatening infections.
But all moms whose babies receive donated breast milk are grateful.
Teresa Wrieden's son was born 14 weeks early and received donor milk from the Iowa bank. At birth he only weighed 1 pound 10 ounces. In the first three weeks on donated breast milk, the baby boy gained over 2 pounds.
"I really wanted to keep him on breast milk and I couldn't provide it," said Wrieden. "It's helping him a lot and he's growing and he's doing really good. He's my sunshine every day and it's good to know that he's getting the best nutrition."
Who Are the Donor Moms?
Women who donate breast milk do so because they want to help other moms and babies, especially those in need.
The donors are both stay-at-home moms and working moms. Sometimes they have extra milk and sometimes they donate milk after suffering a late-term miscarriage or losing a newborn. They are not paid for their time or compensated in any way. Many feel that donating their extra milk is a way to give back to their communities and a way to help their peers.