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Milk Bank Saving Preemies One Drop Of Donated Milk At A Time

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Courtesy Photo
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Michele Martinez

In San Antonio, 1 in 8 babies is born premature, compared to 1 in 13 in the United States. For these babies, weighing 3-1/2 pounds or less, breast milk is often lifesaving, but some mothers of preterm babies are unable to produce milk. Other lactating mothers are coming to the rescue.

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Geri Collins seems to love all things nursing. She’s the director of the Women's Center for Methodist Healthcare System in San Antonio. Collins points out her favorite product they sell-- a breastfeeding pillow called “my breast friend.” Then she turns on a breast pump.

"What you hear at the beginning is what we term a stimulation cycle, which is that little fast go," Collins says. "That mimics a baby when he first comes to the breast. He’ll do some fast suckles and stop and do some more, which sends the message up to mom’s brain -- feeding time, now let’s let down that milk." 

That’s when things are working well. Some mothers of preterm babies are not able to produce milk because of the stress of delivering early or because of a medical condition. And preterm babies need breast milk the most. Collins says it gives them medicine that can’t be duplicated in any other way.

"It protects their gut," Collins says. "That’s one of the biggest benefits for those preterm babies. There’s an ugly disease called necrotizing enterocolitis, that cannot give you a good outcome on the preterm baby. Very costly as well as the baby could not survive."

Necrotizing enterocolitis is a disease of the intestines that is often deadly. Preterm babies with the disease who are fed breast milk have a 65 percent greater chance of surviving than those who are not. Preterm babies also may have problems with temperature, feeding, growing, development, vision and in the future, may have learning disabilities. 

But, what if you’re a mother of a preemie and you can’t produce milk? That’s where Mother’s Milk Bank in Austin comes in. Lactating women donate breast milk to the bank, which distributes it to over 140 hospitals in 22 states. They just opened a third milk drop-off location in San Antonio—this one at the San Antonio Food Bank.  

Kim Updegrove, executive director, says health providers have learned to feed infants weighing as little as one pound one drop of milk directly into their intestines every three hours.

"And we’ve watched that one drop of milk change the physical appearance of the intestines, the functioning of the intestines, allowing within just a couple of days that baby to absorb the nutrients, to absorb the immune products, and be protected against this world that’s not contained and not safe for this baby born small," Updegrove says.

Michele Martinez is a milk donor in San Antonio, participating in the Mother’s Milk Bank program. She’s a mother of two and has donated milk while nursing both of her children.

"I produce a lot of milk, so it’s something that I can give freely," Martinez says. "It feels good to know that little babies are benefiting from it. Maybe changing their lives forever."

Updegrove says donors like Michele are not only helping the babies, but mothers too.

"Donor human milk provided by milk banks makes it possible for all mothers who give birth prematurely to have hope," Updegrove says.

She says there are 60,000 preterm babies born each year in the United States. Supplying enough milk to hospitals to feed those babies is a constant need.