Donated Breast Milk Is Allowing Women to Feed Their Babies Naturally
Melissa Bisesi always assumed she’d breastfeed her baby. But when her son Frankie was born at Concord’s Emerson Hospital in April with a condition that limited his tongue’s range of motion, it quickly became clear that nursing wasn’t in the cards.
“I, like many first-time moms, naively expected that breastfeeding would be both natural and easy for myself and my baby,” Bisesi says. “I felt like a bad mother for not being able to feed my son.”
Desperate and losing hope, Bisesi began to consider formula—until an Emerson lactation specialist told her about human donor milk. Without hesitation, Bisesi said yes.
“I understand that a lot of women who hear about donated breast milk think that it’s gross or in some way wrong,” she says. “In my mind there is nothing unusual about a human baby drinking human milk.”
Bisesi isn’t alone—human milk banks are more popular and widespread than ever.
Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast, a Newton-based non-profit milk bank, provides 50 hospitals on the East Coast—including Emerson—with pasteurized milk donated by women who have been pre-screened for diseases and other ailments that could affect the safety of breast milk. Executive Director Naomi Bar-Yam says the demand for donated milk has grown as information about nursing’s health benefits spreads.
“The research around the importance of human milk and the value of human milk and, on the opposite side, sometimes the harm that can be caused by giving babies things that are not human milk, various forms of formula, is really getting through,” she says.
In fact, the demand for donor milk has grown enough that Mother’s Milk Bank just opened a new donation center, Acelleron Maternal Health & Wellness Center in North Andover, and plans to open others in Connecticut and New Jersey.
Meg O’Neill, Acelleron’s director of lactation support, says women opt for donor milk over formula mainly for health reasons. “Breast milk is full of antibodies and vitamins and nutrients that are unable to be put into formula,” she explains. “There’s so much research being done about how it affects the lining of your gut, so it’s especially important for [fragile] babies who have this underdeveloped immune system.”
And donor milk isn’t just becoming more prominent for new moms looking to feed their babies; there’s also been an uptick in women looking to give milk. “If you’re somebody who has a desire to give back to your community and you have a newborn, you can’t really go to a homeless shelter to give your time, but you can add in an extra pumping session,” O’Neill says.
Mother’s Milk Bank has also seen an uptick in calls from women who want to donate. “Throwing out milk is very painful; you don’t want to have to do that,” Bar-Yam says. “[Women] see how important that milk is for their babies, and they really realize that they have a very special gift to share, and a unique gift.”
Bar-Yam says donated milk is typically only used for very fragile or premature babies, or by women who intend to breastfeed but can’t produce enough milk right away. Using it long-term is costly—roughly $500 for a week’s worth—and not always possible given supply limitations.
As for the gross-out element, Bar-Yam acknowledges that it exists, but says there’s no logical reason for it. “Not only do we have no problem with people drinking cow’s milk, we also have no problem with people accepting blood products when they need a blood transfusion,” she notes. “Why people get that ‘Ew, yuck’ factor is a good question.”
For her part, new mother Bisesi, who is now feeding Frankie herself, says she’d highly recommend donor milk to other struggling new moms.
“It can be a wonderful bridging option for women who are committed to breast-feeding but who, for whatever reason, have a rocky start,” she says. “It made a world of difference for me and I hope it will continue to do so for others.”