Five years ago, Cindy Bys, a working mother of three from North Liberty, Iowa, had identical twin girls who were born prematurely. Bys spent a lot of time in the neonatal intensive care unit, and although she was able to pump her own milk for her babies, she saw lots of other babies in need.
So when she gave birth to a baby boy 10 months ago, Bys decided to donate her extra milk to the Mother's Milk Bank of Iowa.
"With this baby I have extra breast milk, so donation is a great way to help other babies get a good start," said Bys.
Gretchen Flatau, executive director of the Mother's Milk Bank in Austin, Texas, believes women who give to milk banks are true altruists.
"When you look at the donor moms who make it happen, what the moms are providing, the gifts that they are giving, and the benefits for the babies who are getting it, this is an inspiring story," she said.
Schmid, the triplets' mother, says not knowing the identity of the donor moms makes the milk even more special.
"Without knowing me or meeting me it makes that gift more meaningful," she said. "It's something that is voluntary and it takes time and it's just very generous of these women who help those of us who can't nurse their children or elect not to for various reasons."
Mothers who are willing to share their extra milk must be nursing and in good health. They cannot smoke, take any medications or consume alcohol.
All Mother's Milk Banks follow strict guidelines put in place by the Human Milk Banking Association of America. Much like a blood bank, milk banks carefully screen donor moms for infections and viruses, including HIV and hepatitis B and C.
"We have a verbal screen, a written screen and we contact the donor's physician and her baby's physician," said Jean Drulis, director of the Mother's Milk Bank of Iowa.
The donated milk is pasteurized and tested for bacteria before being dispensed to babies in need.
There are currently six human milk banks in the United States, with four more opening their doors within the next 12 months. All are either run by nonprofit organizations or associated with a medical center. The milk banks are run as nonprofit, so they charge no more than the cost of collecting, pasteurizing, storing and shipping the milk. Whether the patient, a hospital or an insurer picks up the tab varies. Some of the banks ship milk to different locations.
Human milk banks date back to the turn of the last century. Then, the breast milk banks replaced the role of wet nurses — women who breast-fed the babies of family, friends and neighbors — by creating a store of donated breast milk for use in hospitals.
The banks all but disappeared in the mid-1980s with the arrival of HIV/AIDS and concerns over its transmission. But in 1985, the Human Milk Banking Association of America was established to provide safe standards for milk banks, and Mother's Milk Banks are again on the rise.
Flatau says one of the reasons there are not more human milk banks in the United States is what she calls the "yuck factor," a natural aversion to sharing breast milk.
"As Americans, we seem to trust these formula products that come in sealed containers, but not breast milk," she said. "There has never been a documented case of a baby getting sick from getting donor human milk."
Why Not Use Formula?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends human milk as the preferred nutrition for all infants.