Project Milk

I think I'm going to become a milk donor.

I get regular emails from the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, a group charged with raising breastfeeding rates in the U.S. (which are much lower than in the rest of the developed world, just so you know), researching a wide range of issues related to breastfeeding, and generally promoting the importance of human milk. Today, they put out an urgent call for milk donation. They're partnering with other organizations like La Leche League International to send human milk to Haiti, but for now, while Haiti doesn't have the infrastructure to support international milk donation (e.g., refrigeration and reliable shipping methods), they're also hoping to build up supplies in American milk banks, which are usually woefully short of the supply that's needed for premature and sick infants unable to take formula.

I didn't know milk donation even existed when Kent was a baby, and since the composition of a mother's milk changes so much as her child grows, he was too old for me to donate by the time I learned about it. I've been thinking that I ought to look into it this time around, and several months ago, I even offered to pump extra milk for a friend of mine in town who's an adoptive parent, if they decide to adopt another baby any time soon. Still, I'd sort of been sitting on the idea, since this friend may not be adopting this year, and I hadn't done any research about milk banks or what it would take to get started as a donor. If the USBC hadn't put out this call today, I'm not sure I ever would have followed up on it. But the more I thought about it today, the more I thought, "Wow, this is something I can do to help babies in need. And I can start in just a few weeks."

As much as I talk about wanting to do volunteer work when my kids get older, I feel really inadequate right now, since being a stay-at-home mom precludes a lot of the work I would ordinarily seek out. But donating milk? It's not only something I can do while I have a baby; it's something I can do because I have a baby. That window won't be open forever. And so few women do it.

Milk donation is a huge investment of time and energy, first of all because pumping is no picnic. And this requires a lot of pumping, way more than I would need to do just to build up a supply in the freezer for the few times I need to be away from my own baby. The more I've learned today, though, the easier the whole process seems. There's a bank in Austin, TX, (the closest one to us) that will pay for the blood screenings they require, and they'll send me storage containers and a shipping cooler and pay for me to ship the milk to them on dry ice. They were thrilled to get back to me after I sent them an email this afternoon, because they have a lot of trouble keeping up with the demand out there, even in the U.S. I'm sure there aren't many women who make such a commitment; I tend to run with a very pro-breastfeeding crowd, and none of us has ever donated milk, even though some of my friends have talked about it. Knowing what I know about how few people donate blood who are able, I can't imagine what a small percentage there must be of lactating women who donate their milk.

Even though the idea of helping Haitians was the kick in the pants I needed to get started on this, I'm okay with my milk helping American babies instead, especially right now while Haiti is unable to receive it. I feel like Haitians would also probably be more receptive to the idea of wet nurses than Americans would, so I hope that's an option right now while so many babies are left needing human milk.

This bank requires a large initial donation — 200 ounces for the first shipment I send them — since it costs a lot for them to get a donor set up and I'm sure they want to make sure I'm serious. Other banks have minimums as low as 100 ounces, which would take much less time to build up, but it just depends on their individual requirements. They do have a lower minimum for people who are able to drop off their donations in person, but since Louisiana doesn't have a bank, this is what I'm going to do. I'm sure it'll take me a couple of months and some borrowed freezer space at friends' houses to build up 200 ounces, but at least my subsequent donations can be smaller.

On a related note, I've also been hearing from a friend of mine about an organization called Milkshare that a lot of people go through. Unlike a milk bank, which combines donations from a lot of women, pasteurizes their milk in large batches, and distributes it to hospitals and families (who usually have to pay per ounce to cover costs), Milkshare facilitates something a little more personal, sort of like an open adoption. It helps individual donors and families find and select each other, and then it's up to them to work out what sort of health screenings the donor will undergo and to make shipping/reimbursement arrangements, and pasteurization is something that's left up to the receiving family. Apparently there are home pasteurization kits. Who knew? Well, Pasteur knew... but I didn't.

So this is quite a project, eh? I'm thinking of it the way I would think of any new volunteering or community service project. I might make myself a sticker chart — after all, stickers do wonders for Kent's motivation to use the potty, so maybe they work on moms as well. I'm so excited about this and can't wait for the screening call from Austin to make sure I'm eligible. If anyone else wants to join Project Milk, let me know. I'm not expecting a response, really, but it doesn't hurt to put the information out there, start the conversation, and see where it travels.

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Hooray from Mom!
Erica, I think this is AWESOME. I looked into doing the same thing but with working outside of the home full time and pumping at work, I just wasn't able to make enough extra to donate. I think this is a great idea and a great way to contribute to our society. Kudos to you! :) Heather
When I first had Ela, I kind of wondered if anything like this existed. I never had time to pump even for me, much less for others, but it's good to know it's out there. Thanks for the information! :-)
You are incredible. Go Mommy!
I came across this article last year when I was receiving O magazine. It was the first time I had heard about Milk Banks. Have you seen it?

Alice, that's an amazing story-- thanks so much for sharing the article. =) I'm all emotional now (not hard, because I'm very pregnant, but still...).
Erica, you will be some family's hero. This is such a wonderful thing that you are doing. Honestly, I don't know if I will go through all of the meds, herbs and pumping that I did with Luke, for the next baby. I hope to be able to get breastmilk somehow, if I should need it and this is such a wonderful service. It takes a very selfless and giving person to do this and I'm very proud to have you as my friend.
Erica, One of my best friends did this and donated over 300 oz. to the Duke Hospital's Milk Bank...or WakeMed, I can't remember. She was so glad to do and it definitely opened up her freezer space. She's planning on doing it again (she's got a 3 mth. old now) and its easier this time around too since she's SAHM. Kudos to you! I think its a wonderful cause. I'm like Heather. I was lucky to make it 13 mths. and I barely had enough to get by until the end. Good for you! Jen Calhoun
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