Charitable human milk donations increase amidst pandemic

Of the many inequalities the pandemic has exposed and compounded, working and schooling from home has illuminated certain work-family conflicts and gender inequality at home and at work. 

Andrea Hsu in her recent NPR article ‘This Is Too Much’: Working Moms Are Reaching The Breaking Point During The Pandemic quotes Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving: “‘The obstacles and hardships facing working mothers are not new, but the pandemic has given them more visibility.’”

Photo by Standsome Worklifestyle

Despite the workload mothers are often burdened by, there’s been an interesting silver lining. 

Program coordinator at Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes Susan Urbanski, CLS was the first to describe the phenomenon to me. 

“Interestingly enough, [human milk] donations are a little bit up,” Urbanski says.  “Our milk supply is really healthy right now.” 

Urbanski theorizes that the increase in milk donations is because many mothers are working from home, making breastfeeding and pumping more convenient and comfortable in certain cases. 

She directs our attention to Casey’s Donor Story which describes how a change in this mother’s work situation due to COVID opened the opportunity to donate her milk. Urbanski says that her story echoes what they’re hearing from many other donors.

Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) Executive Director Lindsay B. Groff, MBA further explains: “Families are together and when mom and baby are physically together, mom can generally produce more milk.”

Groff acknowledges that although the pandemic has increased stress globally, in North America, there seems to be less hustle and bustle, to-do lists have shrunken, and partners are often in the home to help support the breastfeeding parent.  

She also notes that premature births have decreased during the pandemic, an interesting factor that would contribute to more mothers with sufficient milk production and a decrease in demand for pasteurized donor human milk (PDHM). 

Tytina Sanders-Bey, community engagement program manager for Mother’s Milk Bank WGL, shows support for donor milk in Mother’s Milk Bank WGL fundraising gear

As a result of COVID, Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes milk depots and dispensaries had to get creative about how they functioned, switching from walk-ins to curbside pick ups, but that didn’t necessarily affect their traffic, Urbanski explains. 

Milk banks, milk bank depots and donor milk distribution sites have an important communal presence, not only providing milk to babies in need but also providing education, collaboration and support, Groff says. Support looks different now with virtual meetings, contactless drop-offs and mobile phlebotomy, but it’s “most certainly still there and still personable.”

Jean M. Drulis, Director and Cofounder of the Mother’s Milk Bank of Iowa wrote  Charitable Human Milk Donations to the Mother’s Milk Bank of Iowa for International Childbirth Education Association (ICEA) in September. 

Drulis’s piece reflects the collective experience of North American milk banks and donations. 

She writes:

“We attribute, in part, our recent upsurge in milk donations/donors to Covid-19. We never have received such an outpouring of milk, so much so that we purchased 6 additional double door upright freezers in the last 6 months.

Some of our depots with full freezers are serving as holding sites temporarily. This is a vital role of depots, one we infrequently utilize, and when we do, it is mainly because of driver availability and scheduling.

Our service has gone contactless, depot volunteers bring the milk outside to the driver. For milk deliveries, donors call when they arrive, put their precious donations in coolers in our lobby and return to their vehicle. Thereafter, the milk is taken to a freezer. When dispensing outpatient milk, the routine is similar, the recipient family calls, leaves the documents/prescription in a folder in our lobby, we fill the prescription and put the milk in a cooler in our lobby. The milk is then retrieved by the family. The procedure for shipping milk was already contactless, the driver picks it up in our lobby.

This increase in donated milk has taken the Mother’s Milk Bank of Iowa to the next level, we are poised to serve more hospitals and home recipients thanks to the generosity of milk donors.” 

Director of community relations at The New York Milk Bank, Inc. Roseanne R. Motti, BA, MFA, CLC says they expected to have fewer people calling to donate milk during the pandemic.

“We saw just the opposite!” she exclaims. 

Groff says the same: “At the onset of the pandemic, the initial reaction was honestly fear- based. We thought, ‘What will happen? People aren’t going to donate, they might not want to come out of their home…’ but it has been this awe-inspiring. There’s been an outpouring of support from moms and a willingness to give. Moms who donate milk at any time are heroes, but now it’s just extraordinary.” 

Motti adds that the average amount a donor is willing to donate also increased. 

Photo by Luiza Braun on Unsplash

“Many of these women were working remotely and no longer had a need to keep their freezers full since their babies were home with them,” she goes on. 

The New York Milk Bank, Inc. had to purchase four additional freezers to hold their increased donations. 

“Many of our sister milk banks saw the same,” she adds. 

Motti explains how their bank got creative to keep their donors, families and milk safe during this uncertain time.   

“We contracted with a mobile phlebotomist to go to our donors’ homes during the worst of the pandemic. The phlebotomist changed her PPE for each home she went to. She agreed to meet the donor outside her home or wherever the donor felt most comfortable, so long as it was a clean and safe place. This made blood testing so much easier for our donors.

Our milk bank and our milk depots made dropping milk safe and secure for our milk donors by scheduling  appointments. Some of our depots even met our milk donors at their cars to make it safer.” 

Several states over, in Missouri, Milk Bank Systems Coordinator at Bronson Mothers’ Milk Bank Theresa Woloszyk says their donations have increased too, again attributing the influx to mothers working from home. 

“We are very thankful that so many mothers have taken the time to donate their milk, even with everything that is going on in the world,” Woloszyk says. 

Motti expresses deep appreciation as well. 

“We are grateful for the women who have agreed to become milk donors during this trying time and to our many milk depots across the tri-state area for keeping everyone safe so that the babies who are in need of safe, pasteurized donor human milk had an abundant supply,” she writes. 

Urbanski makes an interesting connection. Even in COVID-19 positive patients, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend mother baby separation; still, it’s happening.

If newborn supplementation is necessary for any reason, including maternal separation, families deserve the option of choosing donor milk. 

It’s up to individual maternity care facilities to decide who has access to PDHM and in many cases, it’s reserved for babies in the neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).  Urbanski makes the important point that a small amount of PDHM can be all that is needed to bridge the gap until mothers are able to supply enough of their own milk for full feedings. Donor milk is beneficial even for full term neonates. 

With such small quantities of milk needed by newborns coupled with a surge of donations, let’s hope there will be widespread use of PDHM when needed.

Groff says, “My hope is aspirational that moms continue to feed their own babies and the need for donor milk goes down. I really hope that moms continue to be so generous, that they’ll tell their friends and maybe [this surge] will be sustainable in some way in the future.”

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