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Milk of human kindness helps babies

Nursing mothers who want to help feed premature, ill or hungry babies now have a convenient location to drop off their donations of surplus breast milk.

Providence Medford Medical Center opened the first "Milk Drop" in Southern Oregon earlier this week and is busy collecting the lifesaving "liquid gold" for the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank, said Tracy Hanson, the hospital's lactation educator. She said the milk bank receives the donations from pre-tested mothers who have more milk than their own baby needs.

"This really gives lactating mothers an opportunity to be of service," Hanson said. "You can definitely be doing a lot of good."

Human milk provides babies with optimal nutrition, promotes their normal growth and development, and reduces their risk of illness and disease. As research continues to confirm the benefits, more and more health systems will use donated human milk for medically fragile babies, she said.

"It is literally lifesaving medicine to fragile newborn infants in neonatal intensive care units," Hanson said.

Neonatologists say premature babies who have access to breast milk have a lower risk of infections and life-threatening intestinal complications.

"They leave the intensive care unit earlier, and later in life they have higher IQs and fewer developmental problems," Dr. Stefanie Rogers, neonatologist and Northwest Mothers Milk Bank medical co-director, said in a press release.

On Monday, its first day of operation, the drop site collected about 650 ounces of breast milk, which is enough to feed one baby for more than a month, Hanson said.

Providence nurse Siri Swanson donated 600 ounces of that breast milk. The 36-year-old gave birth to her third child about six months ago. She has been breast-feeding her baby exclusively, and pumping extra milk each morning to donate to the milk bank, she said.

"Human babies need human milk. It's the best source of nutrients for them," Swanson said, adding the Pacific Northwest has some of the highest breast-feeding rates in the nation.

To qualify as a donor, Swanson contacted the milk bank, answered a health questionnaire, then followed up with a blood draw that tested her for HIV and other blood-borne illnesses, she said.

"And then you can donate your milk," Swanson said.

The process was painless, free and helps protect newborns from potential infections or diseases, she said.

Swanson, who nursed her own twins seven years ago, said her body is supplying the extra milk easily.

"My body thinks I have a really hungry baby in the mornings," Swanson said. "It ramps up production at night so that it's ready to go in the morning."

The milk is placed in sterilized bags at the mothers' homes, frozen, then shipped to the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank in Portland for pasteurization, testing and eventual distribution to NICUs from as far as Seattle to as close as Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center, Hanson said.

"Breast milk is what we want to feed those babies," Hanson said. "We hope that we build up a base down here and help sick babies in the Northwest."

Citing recent media stories about problems with "black market" breast milk, Hanson stressed donations being collected at Providence are destined for the nonprofit milk bank and Pacific Northwest hospitals with neonatal units. Some milk is made available for sale to mothers who cannot breast-feed their babies. But those mothers must have a prescription from their doctors stating the medical necessity for the milk, she said.

She said she has seen prices for the unscreened, untested black-market milk selling for upwards of $18 an ounce.

"That's scary," Hanson said, adding mothers who donate unpasteurized milk could be unwittingly passing along dangerous infections to newborns.

"They might not even know they have something, and be passing it along in their milk," Hanson said.

The pasteurization process eliminates bacteria and other infectious organisms that could be present in human milk. A small percentage of nutritional and immunological properties are destroyed by pasteurization, but pasteurized milk retains many of its beneficial properties, according to the milk bank website.

The milk bank also performs regular screenings on the milk to ensure its quality and safety, Hanson said.

Swanson plans to continue supplementing her baby's diet with breast milk for up to one year. As long as she's lactating naturally, she'll also pump extra for the milk bank, she said.

"As long as it's not intrusive to my life, I'll still be pumping," Swanson said.

Providence is pleased to be providing a convenient location for women who wish to donate breast milk, Hanson said.

"Before we opened, the next closest milk drop sites were in San Jose, Calif., and Portland," she said.

Women interested in becoming a milk donor may call Hanson at 541-732-5717, or the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank at 503-469-0955.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Tracy Hanson, Providence Medford Medical Center's lactation educator, sorts through some of the “liquid gold” breast milk that will be shipped to the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank in Portland for pasteurization, testing and distribution to regional hospitals.