Virginia Milk Bank Seeks Donors for Hospitalized Babies

Donated Breast Milk Helps Preemies Overcome Health Challenges

Norfolk, Va., March 20, 2024 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Brittany Moultrie wasn’t sure her premature daughter, Charli, was going to survive. Born more than three months before her due date, Charli weighed 1 pound 13 ounces. When she arrived at the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Va., Charli had jaundice, a small brain bleed, and needed oxygen.
“She was really, really little,” Moultrie said. “I was scared to hold her at first.”
Knowing that her breast milk was the best nutrition for Charli, Moultrie tried pumping to get her milk supply started. But like many women whose babies are born months before they’re due, Moultrie faced an uphill battle trying to produce enough milk. After two weeks of consistently pumping with scant results, Moultrie was grateful to learn that Charli could receive safe, pasteurized human milk through the hospital's donor milk bank. In the following weeks, Moultrie watched her daughter gain weight and thrive in the NICU at CHKD.
“It was the best way for her to get all the nutrients that she needed,” said Moultrie, who lives in Chesapeake, Va.
Despite the medically proven benefits of human milk and a growing percentage of moms who breastfeed, it is a constant race at CHKD to find women who are able and willing to donate their surplus milk. It has been this way since the nonprofit milk bank opened in 2014. Today, the bank supplies milk to 40 hospitals along the Eastern Seaboard, from Florida to New Jersey.
“People can donate blood throughout most of their lifetime,” said Ashlynn Baker, director of the milk bank at CHKD. “But women can only donate their surplus milk during the few months or years of their life that they lactate. We are constantly looking for new donors who are willing to do this wonderful, selfless thing to protect our nation’s most fragile infants.”
To encourage women to become donors, CHKD covers all costs associated with screening and even arranges for the shipping of their frozen milk from their homes. Donors can also live outside of Virginia. One donor lived in Georgia, a few states away from the bank’s processing center in Virginia. Interested families can call (757) 668-MILK to start the screening process.
The milk bank also has a legacy program for women who have lost a baby but want to donate their milk to help other infants. “Many of these women find that donating their milk in memory of their baby helps them grieve and heal,” Baker said.
On average, CHKD has roughly 400 active donors and donor applicants. All donors are required to pass a three-step screening process that includes a phone interview, an electronic questionnaire, and a blood test, which is paid for by the milk bank. By the time women finish the screening process, others are dropping off the active donor roster. To take care of all the families who turn to the milk bank for help, the active donor list would need to grow by an additional 100 donors, Baker said.
When supply is limited, the bank makes hospitalized babies its first priority. “Since we opened, there has never been a time that we could not provide milk to the neonatal intensive care units we serve," Baker said. “But there are times around the holidays and during the summer when we only have enough milk for hospitalized babies.”
This means the milk bank is not always able to provide milk to babies who have been discharged from the hospital with a doctor’s prescription for pasteurized donor human milk. These are babies in the home setting who have extreme feeding intolerances, kidney disease, heart disease, or short bowel syndrome – a condition that results from having necrotizing enterocolitis as a preemie.
“We really want to be able to reach more of these babies because it’s going to help keep them from needing to be hospitalized,” Baker said.
In 2012, and again in 2022, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement that all preterm infants should receive human milk due to its potent benefits. If a mother's own milk is unavailable, despite significant lactation support, then pasteurized donor human milk should be used.
“The most important reason we use donor milk for high-risk infants in the NICU is to prevent the leading cause of death of premature infants, which is necrotizing enterocolitis,” said Laura Biava, a registered nurse and director of CHKD’s NICU. A serious disease, necrotizing enterocolitis is when the lining of the intestinal wall dies. Infants have to stop all feedings and rely instead on intravenous fluids. In many cases, surgery is needed to remove the dead tissue and reconnect the bowel.
“Decades of research tells us that the only way to prevent necrotizing enterocolitis is to provide a human milk diet to high risk and extremely premature infants,” said Baker, a former NICU nurse. “It reduces the risk of disease and death by as much as 80 percent versus using other feeding sources.”
There are other invaluable benefits, too. Human milk exposes an infant to species-specific nutrition, growth hormones, proteins, and antibodies. Human milk also helps protect infants from the dangerous side effects of medically necessary treatments used in the NICU such as providing oxygen, which can damage the lungs and eyes. Studies show that human milk can reduce the risk of severe ROP – retinopathy of prematurity -- which is the leading cause of blindness in premature infants.
“This is so much more than just a feeding type or just a sole form of nutrition,” Baker said. “This is a life-saving medical treatment, for high-risk infants, especially premature infants.”
Virginia Beach resident Olivia Lee credits pasteurized donor human milk with helping her daughter, Savannah, recover from necrotizing enterocolitis. Lee had a good supply of milk for about six weeks after Savannah was born. Then, her production diminished.
About the same time, Savannah was diagnosed with necrotizing enterocolitis and had to stop all feedings while she was treated with antibiotics. When her feedings resumed, she received pasteurized donor human milk from CHKD's milk bank until she was old enough to switch to formula.
“Being able to stay on breast milk definitely helped her,” Lee said.
As for the women who donate their milk, Lee said she is touched by their generosity.
“These women are willing to donate out of the kindness of their hearts,” Lee said. “They’re willing to go out of their way to help other women who are in a position where they don’t know what they can do to help their own baby.” Although Lee doesn’t know if she’ll have another child, she said she’d like to help other new moms if she can. “If I had a good supply, I’d definitely be a donor.” 


Mother holds premature infant. Newborn infant sleeps in neonatal intensive care unit.