Breast milk banks see strong demand increase due to shortage of baby food

Milk banks across the country collect donated breast milk from nursing women and distribute it to babies struggling with a national baby food shortage that experts are calling a “crisis.”

If you’ve never heard of a breast milk bank, you’re not alone.

“I have the impression that it is very difficult to explain who we are and what we do,” says Dr. Susan B. Campbell, executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Tennessee.

What is a breast milk bank?

The Human Milk Bank Association of North America (HMBANA) counts 31 local milk banks in the US as members that receive donations of excess breast milk from healthy, nursing women.

“Donations come from oversupplied women who don’t need their child, and they generously donate their milk to us,” said Linda Harelick, executive director of the New York Milk Bank.

They operate as non-profit organizations and typically reserve their supply for babies who are born prematurely or whose medical needs require them to rely solely on breast milk and whose birth mother cannot provide it to them.

Donors are screened and blood tested before they can donate milk, which is pasteurized and tested for communicable diseases before being put into a milk bank’s frozen stock and finally distributed.

Harelick, of the New York Milk Bank, said she has seen a “big increase” in parental demand and donations of excess breast milk over the past six weeks, as the nationwide baby food shortage has become more acute.

“They saw that this is an escalating problem and they want to help,” she told CBS MoneyWatch.

On a typical Thursday, about one or two families call for donated breast milk. This Thursday, the milk bank handled more than a dozen calls.

On the supply side, the milk bank signs about six new donors on a normal day. Now it’s up to 26 potential candidates.

“Women are incredibly generous,” she said.

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Supply and demand

Babies with special needs, because they were born prematurely or underweight, are always given priority.

“The end users of most milk are infants who need it more for the drugs than for food. Much of the milk is distributed to hospitals with NICUs and small infants who cannot tolerate formula fed formulas,” said Kim Updegrove, executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank in Austin, Texas.

But when they’re oversupplied, or during natural disasters like hurricanes, milk banks also cater to the needs of parents of otherwise healthy babies.

“Forever we have responded to moments of crisis, providing donor milk to healthier babies in times of hurricanes and earthquakes and when COVID caused the separation of mothers and their babies,” Updegrove said.

Of course, a milk bank’s ability to deliver milk to infants outside of the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) depends on the incoming supply.

In Austin, the current bottle-feeding shortage coincides with the end of a year in which breast milk demand increased and supply declined, Updegrove said. She said the milk bank is doing its best to respond to calls from families with healthy babies, who in the past have relied on formula that is suddenly hard to come by.

Updegrove said the milk bank has the capacity to provide non-NICU babies with 39 ounces each, or about a day’s worth of breast milk for a baby 4 to 5 months old.

“It’s not a long-term solution, but it’s as much volume as we can deliver,” she said, adding that parents receive the formula for free.

She added that the milk bank now receives about 50 questions a week from parents of non-NICU babies,
more than double the volume in January.

Given the increased demand for formula, Updegrove is encouraging women who can to donate their excess breast milk.

“It’s a call to women to make a decision to pump a little extra a day. Even an ounce a day will help a lot of other babies,” she said. “They can become a life-saving donor during this time of crisis.”

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Just a “part solution”

Lindsay Groff, the executive director of HMBANA, said helping families with donated breast milk is only “a partial solution” to the national deficit. “It’s not the ultimate solution, because donor milk is a priority for the most medically vulnerable babies in the NICU.”

“Demand is rising, people are desperate,” she said. “If more healthy, lactating people reach out to their local milk bank to donate, we will have more milk available to go beyond those with the most urgent needs,” Groff said.

Mothers who have breastfed once but have stopped can also sometimes regain their ability to produce milk, Groff added.

In 2021, HMBANA’s 31 milk banks collectively dispensed 9.2 million ounces (about 720,000 gallons) of milk, a 22% increase from 2020. Currently, milk banks across the country are experiencing an increase in demand of about 20%, according to Groff, who expects it to continue to rise.

“I suspect that every day that goes by will increase,” she said.

If there’s a silver lining to the shortage of national formulas, it’s that it makes milk banks more aware, Groff said.

“Babies always need donor milk,” she said. “Hopefully this helps more people understand that.”

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