The first breast milk depot in northern Minnesota opened last week at Essentia-St. Mary’s Medical Center. On Tuesday, Molly Williams — with son, Logan, on her hip — donated 600 ounces of her frozen supply to Essentia’s milk depot.

“I breastfed my son until he was 16 months old, and then I had all the milk left over in the freezer, and I didn’t want it to go to waste,” she said.

Donor milk will go to the hospital’s patients in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit and Birthplace, and Williams, who is also a registered nurse at Essentia, said, “It’s a great gift to be able to help them get the best start possible.”

Essentia is the 14th depot in the state, after St. Paul, St. Cloud, Fairmont, Owatonna — all due to the efforts and collaboration with Golden Valley nonprofit Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies.

“The goal is for them to receive their mother’s own milk. That’s the gold standard,” said Linda Dech, executive director Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies.

Molly Williams donated 600 ounces of breastmilk to the Milk Depot at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Molly Williams donated 600 ounces of breastmilk to the Milk Depot at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

But there is a need, and the milk depot aims to minimize risk and avoid issues for medically fragile infants.

“It’s very frequent that we need nutrition for the babies when the mother’s milk isn’t available,” said Essentia neonatologist Dr. Lee Muskovitz. “The research and the medical opinion is that breast milk is superior to formula to give especially to preemies.”

NICU patients who can’t have formula, newborns whose mother’s milk hasn’t come yet, babies who can’t actively breastfeed — they need a supplement, and donor milk is a great way to bridge the gap.

The hospital used to order donor milk from banks in Iowa or Colorado. That they can now get milk from Minnesota is advantageous logistically, and it will aid their supply in the NICU, Muskovitz said.

Screening

Eligible donors are healthy moms who have had a baby themselves and an abundant supply above what their baby needs.

Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies donor coordinator Kris Scott facilitates the screening process, which starts with an interview and covers a mother’s medications and nutrition while pumping. There’s also lab testing to ensure donations are free from communicable diseases.

If she passes, the donor is then issued a number, and she can drop her supply at the nearest milk depot. From there, it’s transported to the nonprofit’s Golden Valley location, where a batch is tested and the donation is pasteurized before distribution.

Molly Williams of Saginaw, Minnesota, cuts the ribbon to officially open the Milk Depot at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center while holding her 18-month-old son Logan Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Williams was the first mother to donate to the depot. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
Molly Williams of Saginaw, Minnesota, cuts the ribbon to officially open the Milk Depot at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center while holding her 18-month-old son Logan Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. Williams was the first mother to donate to the depot. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

Pasteurization eliminates viruses or bacteria that might be present while leaving as much nutritious content as possible, Scott said.

Blood-borne diseases like hepatitis or HIV deem donors ineligible, as might a chronic disease that requires certain medications to treat.

It’s a similar standard for blood donations, Dech said. So no tattoos or piercings in the past 12 months.

The screening process can take two to four weeks. A minimum donation is 100 ounces — enough to feed 100 babies, Scott said — and breast milk can keep in a deep freeze for up to one year.

Milk sharing

When Amber Goodspeed returned to work after having her daughter, she pumped 30 ounces a day, and she started stockpiling it.

Pumping is emotional and exhausting, she said. “I would cry when I was pumping because I missed my daughter. The thought of having to throw it away or dump it was too heartbreaking.”

Goodspeed had “months and months” worth of breast milk in her freezer when she looked into donating. She located Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies before the depot opened in Duluth.

She said she worried her milk would go bad before she got cleared, so she was able to donate about 60 roughly 8-ounce bags of breast milk to friends and relatives with babies.

“It was a huge emotional relief for me,” she said. “I felt like I was doing something productive … pumping to give it to a baby who needed it, who wasn’t just my own baby.”

“Milk-sharing has been going on since the beginning of time,” Dech said.

There is informal milk-sharing, but the nonprofit is working with moms who like to donate their milk for the purpose that it be pasteurized and provided to medically fragile infants.

The Milk Depot at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center allows mothers with an abundance of breastmilk to donate it. All donations go to babies and mothers in need in Minnesota. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
The Milk Depot at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center allows mothers with an abundance of breastmilk to donate it. All donations go to babies and mothers in need in Minnesota. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

At Essentia, Muskovitz discusses the option of donor milk early when working with families who might deliver preemies. In these early talks, he sees 80% of moms willing to use donor milk if it’s needed; 15% say they’ll think about it, and a small percentage say no.

“They don’t have a specific, scientific reason; they don’t feel it’s something appropriate for their baby,” he said.

Added Scott, a registered nurse and certified lactation counselor: “Having worked in a hospital before myself, there are some people that can’t get their head around the fact that donated breast milk from a milk bank is safe. They equate milk from someone else like someone else’s body fluid, and it wigs them out.”

“We feel it’s very safe. I have no medical reasons not to use it,” Muskovitz said.

A big question is how to wean babies off donor milk before they’re sent home because they don’t have the supply for that.

Some states cover the cost of donor breast milk through medical assistance and insurance; Minnesota is not one of them yet, Dech said. Eventually, they’d like to see it available on an outpatient basis, as well as available to the general public should supply and demand allow.

For more information, visit Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies at mnmilkbank.org or 763-546-8051; reach Essentia at 218-786-4477.