NEWTONVILLE, Mass. — Cynthia Miller pumped breast milk for her daughter last year while the newborn struggled to survive in a Boston neonatal intensive care unit.
But when baby Vivian lost her battle, Miller knew other mothers from the hospital who still wanted breast milk for their own preemies’ fights.
Mothers who, unlike Miller, weren’t able to make their own milk.
With that in mind, Miller and her husband donated her frozen milk reserves to a nonprofit that opened last August in Newtonville.
Now a year into operation, officials at Mothers’ Milk Bank of New England said it’s the only facility of its sort in the region and one of only a dozen similar operations in North America.
“We were happy we could do that,” Miller, a 38-year-old Newton resident, said of their donation. “… Had we been in a similar situation, where we couldn’t provide, we would have turned to the milk bank.”
The milk bank recently expanded its operation to include a drop-off point at a parenting center in Hanover, Mass., about 20 miles south of Boston.
Bank officials are hoping the depot will make it more convenient for other mothers with breast milk reserves to make donations. The depot is a freezer unit inside Isis Parenting, a private business that’s donating space for the ongoing collection effort.
In nearby South Weymouth, Mass., South Shore Hospital started using milk bank donations a year ago to feed preemie patients who are weaning off intravenous nutrition.
Physician John Fiascone, the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit medical director, said preemies digest breast milk more easily and it helps protect them against necrotizing entercolitis, an intestinal infection that can be deadly.
Fiascone said mothers who deliver pre-term babies are often sick themselves and can’t produce breast milk, while some other mothers can’t keep up with the needs of their infants. The doctor said hospital officials also had concerns about parents turning to a growing black market where unscreened donors put their breast milk up for sale.
“Hopefully, mothers who need to get breast milk for their children won’t have to turn to eBay or Craigslist or a friend of a friend of a friend. Because medically, it’s very dangerous,” Fiascone said. “… Now we worry a lot less about that because the donor just brings milk to the milk bank.”
Milk bank executive director Naomi Bar-Yam said the facility screens potential donor mothers, testing for disease and querying them in a manner similar to blood donation screening before accepting their breast milk. After donations come in, the milk also undergoes a pasteurization process to kill any pathogens. The lab is a closet-size room in an old school that now operates as a cultura l center.
The nonprofit charges $4.50 an ounce for milk, sending it to about a dozen New England hospitals and parents who opt to buy breast milk for their babies.
While donors give milk for free, Bar-Yam said the money goes toward screening donors, collecting donations, and processing and distributing the milk.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate milk banking but recognizes the Human Milk Banking Association of North America as an organization that sets safety guidelines for the operation of member facilities that include the Newtonville nonprofit.
A few states have license requirements for human milk banking, and Bar-Yam said the Newtonville facility just got a license that allows it to send donations to recipients in New York.
Besides preemies, the bank’s milk also has gone to the babies of moms who can’t produce milk after mastectomies and parents who had children through surrogate births.
Donor Mindy Lawless, from Worcester, Mass., said knowing she’s helping her 6-month-old daughter along with other children by pumping her breast milk makes the effort worth it.
The 32-year-old spends a lot of time on the road for her social work job, and chuckles about how many times she’s pulled over in a Massachusetts Turnpike service center and used her Ford Focus’ cigarette lighter receptacle to power her electric breast pump.
“It’s a good motivation, donating the milk, when I’m in a parking lot, pumping again, and it’s hot out or cold out,” Lawless said.
Donor Chris Chanyasulkit, a 35-year-old doctoral candidate from Brookline, Mass., said she even sent donations to the Massachusetts bank while in Washington on business in April. Hotel employees let her store her breast milk in a restaurant freezer before she shipped it out via overnight delivery on the day she checked out.
“It just makes me feel good to know I’ve done something to help the smallest, youngest and most vulnerable,” she said.