Human milk is the one thing known to decrease the risks of a common and sometimes-fatal bowel condition in premature babies and also provides many other benefits, including a stronger immune system.
But many of the smallest and most-vulnerable babies are going without because of a national donor-milk shortage that is becoming worse as fallout from superstorm Sandy strains supplies further.
The Mothers' Milk Bank of Ohio at Grant Medical Center has been struggling for about six months to meet demands from hospitals that aim to feed breast milk to babies who weigh 1,500 grams -- about 3 pounds -- or less, said Fran Feehan, the director of the bank.
The shortage in the past two months has forced those who work with preemies to prioritize who gets the milk. At one point about a month ago, Feehan had orders for about 7,200 ounces of milk and about 1,400 ounces on hand, she said.
The situation has improved, but the 50-some hospitals that depend on her bank still aren't getting all they need, she said.
Feehan and the directors of 12 other nonprofit milk banks in the U.S. and Canada are pleading for more milk from moms who are able to pump and donate to babies in intensive care. In some cases, those babies' moms can't provide breast milk at all -- they're sick or on medication that could harm the baby -- or they need help for several days while they await to produce an adequate milk supply after an early delivery.
Without enough donor milk, "you are ensuring that a significant percentage of preterm infants will be ill, if not die," said Kim Updegrove, the president-elect of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America and executive director of the Mothers' Milk Bank in Austin, Texas.
Increased demand has coincided with an increase in scientific evidence of the good that breast milk does for preemies. Its benefits for all babies are well-established, but in the smallest babies, it can mean the difference between life and death, Updegrove said. One in 8 American babies is born premature.
Marsha Dumm, a neonatal nutritionist at Riverside Methodist Hospital, said her team meets daily to discuss which of the smallest babies will get the available milk. It is going to the most-fragile babies, and many others who could benefit have to eat formula instead, Dumm said.
Necrotizing enterocolitis, a disease that destroys bowel tissue, is a primary concern, she said. "It is a devastating disease, and the one thing that we know is protective against it is human milk."
Milk banks throughout North America are working to spread word of the shortage and to encourage nursing moms to donate. It is free to the mother and relatively simple, Feehan said. The mother has to have a blood test, and then she pumps and freezes milk in containers supplied by the bank. Moms can overnight frozen milk in special packages or drop it off if they're close.
Christal Pinyan of Reynoldsburg began donating about two months ago because she was producing more milk than her 4-month-old daughter, Amelia, needed.
When she discovered that the milk bank was running low, she was especially glad she looked into donating, Pinyan said. "I make all this extra milk, and it might as well go to something good. I'm just happy that I'm able to help."
Informal sharing -- when milk is given to acquaintances or friends or to other moms found on the Internet -- is becoming more common and is likely contributing to less supply for the milk banks, Feehan said.
Milk supplied by the banks is guaranteed safe because it is pasteurized and the moms are screened, and it goes to the babies who need it most, she said.
Most recently, supply has been harmed by the fallout from superstorm Sandy, Updegrove said. Moms without power couldn't pump, and frozen milk began to thaw. Shipping also was hurt by canceled flights and impassable roads, she said.
For information on donating, visit www.ohiohealth.com or call the Mothers' Milk Bank of Ohio at 614-544-0813.
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