KANSAS CITY — When Stephanie Donnell's preemie daughter was in intensive care at St. Luke's Hospital two months ago, she was fed milk from donor mothers that had to be shipped all the way from Denver.
Now St. Luke's is readying its own milk bank that will begin offering donor milk later this month to hospitals throughout the Kansas City area and beyond. And Donnell, who now has more than enough milk of her own for her daughter, Kaylynn, has become one of its donors.
"It's my way of paying it forward," the first-time mother from Kansas City said.
The St. Luke's Heart of America Mothers' Milk Bank is the 13th nonprofit milk bank to become part of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. The banks collect, process and distribute milk in a way that's similar to how blood banks work.
The benefits of breast-feeding infants, from building the immune system to cutting the risks of diabetes and obesity, have long been well-recognized. But there is a growing awareness among both doctors and expectant mothers of the particular value breast milk holds over formula for premature infants. It plays a crucial role in preventing medical complications and improving mental and physical development.
"It's not a lifestyle choice for the preterm population, it's a medical necessity," said Barbara Carr, the physician in charge of the St. Luke's milk bank.
Mothers of premature infants aren't always able to make enough milk immediately after their babies are born, Carr said. Milk from donors — breast-feeding mothers who make more than their babies need — serves as a bridge until the new mothers can produce it on their own.
The amount of donor milk collected nationwide has been growing rapidly, from about 500,000 ounces in 2005 to 2.8 million last year.
But the demand is even greater, Carr said. While a tiny preemie might start out needing just a couple of teaspoons a day, that increases to 8 ounces or more as they grow.
It would take 9 million ounces of milk a year to feed every preemie who could benefit from it.
"There is a continual milk shortage," Carr said. We are always fighting to get enough."
Carr expects the demand to be even greater now that the American Academy of Pediatrics has released new guidelines that call for giving all preterm infants human milk.
The guidelines cite research finding that preemies fed milk had lower rates of blood infections and of a serious condition that causes bowel tissue to die. Milk-fed preemies tended to have higher IQs by the time they were in grade school.
St. Luke's began collecting donor milk about two years ago, but the hospital sent it to a milk bank in Denver. St. Luke's now has the equipment and staff needed to test and pasteurize donated milk, store it and distribute it.
The goal of the St. Luke's milk bank is to collect enough milk to supply all the hospital neonatal intensive-care units in the Kansas City area. Carr estimates that would take about 80,000 to 100,000 ounces per year. That's about twice as much as it collected from its 77 donors last year.
Even so, St. Luke's already has received requests for milk from hospitals as far away as South Carolina and New Jersey.
Like blood banks, milk banks screen donors carefully. Blood tests and doctors' permissions are required. Smokers are turned away. Using certain prescription medications or traveling to certain countries also may rule a donor out.
"It's pretty easy to be disqualified," Carr said. "This is milk going to a very fragile population."
Special care is taken once donors bring in their plastic bags of frozen milk.
The milk is defrosted and given a nutritional analysis to determine its fat and protein content. Milk from several donors is combined in laboratory flasks, then gently swirled by hand to mix it.
This blending keeps the milk nutritionally consistent, said Stephanie Howard, the milk bank's registered dietitian.
"We know just how many times we have to (blend) it to get an equal mix," Howard said.
After it's mixed, the milk is put through a pasteurizer and stored in a walk-in freezer.
Donnell's daughter, Kaylynn, needed donor milk for about a week. After that, Donnell was able to produce more milk than Kaylynn needed. She donated a freezer's worth to St. Luke's several weeks ago.
And while Kaylynn is "eating like a champ," Donnell expects she'll be donating more.
"I have a lot," she said. "We make it for a reason. It's the healthiest stuff for babies."