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Breast Milk Donations: A Q&A with the Staff of the Intensive Care Nursery

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Diamond Jones-Groce and HUP ICN staff stand next to five cases used to mail out breast milk for donation. Jones-Groce donated six cases of breast milk total to Mothers' Milk Bank Northeast after realizing she had saved far more than enough for her newborn daughter.

The season of giving is approaching, and some new mothers have a way of giving back that they may not even realize—breast milk donation.

Donated breast milk is used widely by medical facilities across the nation, including the Intensive Care Nurseries (ICN) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. According to Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, the need is growing as an increasing number of babies are born prematurely and require neonatal intensive care.

A mother whose child was treated at HUP’s ICN recently donated six entire cases of breast milk after realizing she had stored more than enough for her newborn. Her story will be told in this week’s edition of HUPdate.

To learn more about donor milk and what we’re doing at Penn to make donating easier, I reached out to Kelley Karp MSN, BS RN, nurse manager of HUP’s ICN, and Laura A. Carpenter, BSN, RN, IBCLC, a lactation consultant in the HUP ICN.

What would determine if a baby is fed breast milk or formula? How about donor milk?

We educate mothers about the benefits of human milk prenatally, and again on admission so that they can make an informed decision.

If there are no contraindications to mother’s milk, we encourage her to consider pumping for her infant. If she is not a candidate to pump, then donor milk would be offered if the baby meets the established criteria. They would also have the choice of formula. It is ultimately the family’s choice as to what they want their baby to receive. 

All infant that weighs less than 3.3 pounds and whose mother is unable to provide any/enough breast milk qualifies for human donor milk. These infants are typically transitioned off of donor human milk as they approach discharge from the hospital.  We also offer a short term (5 day bridge) for any infant whose mother is pumping, but milk has not yet come in. Finally, we consider larger babies if they have specific conditions. A baby who had abdominal surgery would be an example.

Could you tell me about how breast milk is used in the ICN? How often do babies in the ICN receive maternal breastmilk and donated milk?

In fiscal year 2015, 86 percent of eligible mother’s chose to initiate breastfeeding (baby got some degree of mother’s breastmilk). For infants smaller than 3.3 pounds, 95 percent initiated, and for larger babies--86 percent initiated breastfeeding. Maternal milk is pumped by the infant’s mother and transported to the unit.

When maternal breastmilk is not available or insufficient to meet the infant’s needs, we offer donor human milk. In the last fiscal year, thirty two babies received donor human milk, either exclusively or in combination with maternal breast milk.

From where does HUP’s ICN receive its donor human milk supply?

Donor Human Milk is obtained from two different banks that are part of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America – one is in Massachusetts, the other is in Ohio. 

If a mother has leftover milk that she’d like to donate, how would she begin that process?

We can direct the mother to contact the banks directly (Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, OhioHealth Mother’s Milk Bank). We also have a Breastfeeding Warmline at HUP to answer basic questions, but specific questions about the process should be directed to the individual bank.

Could you explain obstacles in the way of the donating process? I understand Penn is trying to help that?

The biggest obstacle is getting blood drawn. The bank provides the tubes, but the testing must be run at their contracted lab. The donating mother has to find someone to draw her blood. Most labs will only draw if they are sending to their own contracted facility. 

However, HUP just put a new process into place that allows mothers that delivered their baby at HUP to get their blood drawn in the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine.  HUP will then ship the sample to the lab contracted by the milk bank, considerably easing the burden on the mother. We are hoping that this will facilitate more donations. 

What else should we know about breast milk donations?

Human milk can be lifesaving for premature infants. If you are a breastfeeding mother in the community and have a surplus of milk, please consider donating. 


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