Check Up: Children's Hospital building a stockpile for babies in need

Posted: August 18, 2014

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is creating a regional stockpile of a precious pediatric medicine that is in chronic shortage.

We're talking about human breast milk.

At Children's, "human milk is not viewed as food but as a medical intervention," said Diane L. Spatz, director of lactation. "The immunological and anti-inflammatory properties of human milk are especially important for critically ill infants" in intensive care.

Such babies are susceptible to a potentially deadly intestinal inflammation that breast milk helps to prevent - and that baby formula can promote. Yet for various reasons, their own mothers might not be able to provide the milk.

Children's is developing its bank in cooperation with the Human Milk Banking Association of North America ( Founded in 1985 and based in Fort Worth, Texas, the group sets standards for nonprofit centers that collect, test, pasteurize, and ship human milk to hospitals - and, with a doctor's prescription, some homes - for about $4.25 an ounce. Babies drink about 10 ounces a day, and the cost is covered by insurance in the hospital.

Children's will be the association's 18th location; the closest affiliates are in Ohio and Massachusetts.

The need for donor milk is vast, said Spatz, who will direct the new bank. The association estimates that if every neonatal intensive-care unit adhered to expert recommendations for provision of human milk, eight million ounces would be needed.

That's 62,500 gallons, enough to swim laps in.

"[The association] hit three million ounces last year," Spatz said.

The Children's facility will not be fully operational until after the November delivery of a specialized, state-of-the-art milk pasteurizer. Initially, the bank will serve only the needs of Children's patients, about 500 last year.

"But we know that very quickly we will build up a supply that is more than we can use" at Children's, Spatz said. "We won't become a regional bank in our first year of operation, but fairly soon after that."

Her confidence is based on the success of the lactation program, which helps breast-feeding mothers and provides milk storage. For babies with metabolic problems, the program also can alter their milk - for example, concentrate the protein, or make it low-fat.

An army of lactation consultants and nurses keeps careful track of the precious resource.

"So if a mom has a freezer full of milk, more than she'll need, we approach the woman about becoming a donor," Spatz said. "If you've ever met a mother who has donated milk, it's such an empowering and rewarding feeling."

On the rare, sad occasions when a sick infant dies, donating milk can be "a tremendous part of the healing process for the mother," Spatz said.

Even though donors must meet strict screening and testing criteria - including being nonsmokers - last year, mothers at Children's gave more than 35,000 ounces of milk that was sent to the association.

"By doing all of this work on-site, we will streamline what is now a lengthy process and make it even easier for our families and employees to donate milk," she said.

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