Mothers' Milk Bank wants to share lifesaving breast milk with Tennessee's preterm babies

A Nashville-based nonprofit is advocating for a Tennessee pasteurization facility for breast milk. Local supporters of a breast milk depot at Regional One Health say that increased supply could aid Memphis' population of preterm babies. 

Inside Regional One Health’s neonatal intensive care unit, rows of incubators quietly support some of the most critically ill infants in the Mid-South. As nurses and lactation consultants, Ashley Smith and Elaina Hogan know one of the most crucial components in the fight for these littlest lives sits in an large, innocuous freezer at the back of the NICU.

“There is a significant need for breast milk with preterm infants. Their whole lives can depend on what they’re eating in those first few days,” Hogan explained.

Most mothers can produce the milk their babies need, but there are exceptions. Some can’t produce enough supply and others may have milk that is unsafe. For sick and premature babies, many local NICUs are offering an alternative to formula to ensure best outcomes.

“(The mother’s) milk is the best milk for their baby, but if they can’t provide, we ask if they’d be willing to let us provide donor breast milk,” said Smith, who is also the hospital’s lactation coordinator.

While Regional One is working to improve breastfeeding rates among all babies, donated milk is currently available only to infants less than 3 pounds and 34 weeks gestation.

“We’re looking at our very premature because these are the babies that will receive the most benefit,” said Smith.
Ashley Smith (L) and Elaina Hogan with the milk depot at Regional One Health. But with Memphis’ preterm birth rate of 13.7 percent, the highest in the state and well above the 9.6 percent national average, even limiting supply to the most critical is a tall order.

“We use around 1,400 ounces a day, but we’re not the only NICU,” Hogan said. “Pretty much every NICU in the city has need.”

Regional One currently purchases donated milk from Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas, a nonprofit processing facility in Fort Worth, but there are hopes for a more localized source soon. The Mothers’ Milk Bank of Tennessee, founded in 2014 and based in Nashville, is building the case for a Tennessee processing facility. Under the mentorship of Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin, the largest bank in the country, MMBT has already established three milk drop-off centers in the state, including the Regional One Health milk depot in Memphis.

“Once (Tennessee) can prove that we can sustain a certain amount of ounces donated, a certain amount of donors, they’ll work out the funding and begin work on the processing facility. We’re in the proving phase,” said Hogan.

A Tennessee processing and pasteurization facility would mean greater regional availability and more lifesaving donations. “It encourages more mothers in the area to donate when they know this is from Tennessee moms and it’s going to Tennessee babies,” said Smith.

May 2017 marks the Memphis depot’s first year of operation, and it’s collected roughly 7,000 ounces of donated milk in that time. While it’s a strong start, the challenge now is growth and education.

The neonatal intensive care unit at Regional One Health uses 1,400 ounces of breast milk a day.

In the U.S., milk sharing isn’t a well-known practice and many people feel it’s strange or unsanitary. That’s the reaction Deana Pavlicek often gets when she tells people she donated.

“They don’t know it’s a thing. They say, ‘You did what? That’s so gross, it’s so weird.’ There’s such a stigma.”

For Pavlicek, donating may have seemed odd, but not donating felt wasteful. “I learned from my mistakes with my daughter, tricks to keep my supply up. (With my son), I would go to work and pump every three hours, and I would come home with almost triple the amount of milk he needed. It was crazy.”

Soon her deep freezer was full, and Pavlicek was searching for a solution.

“I knew it was going to expire. That’s when I started thinking of donating.” She donated first to a sick friend then strangers via a local Facebook group before discovering the Memphis depot.

The approval process took about a month and included extensive paperwork, blood tests, and a phone interview, but Pavlicek supports the rigorous process.

“This milk is going to really sick premie babies so it has to be really top-notch,” she said.

Once accepted, donating was a surprisingly easy and unexpected joy. “They literally valet parked my car for me for the drop-off,” Pavlicek laughs. Despite the business of the Memphis Medical District, Regional One’s goal for the milk depot is to make donation as easy as grabbing coffee at your local shop.

But for Smith, Hogan, and Pavlicek, the key to saving more babies isn’t just convenience, it’s awareness of the depot, the need for donations and the need for volunteers and financial backing to make a Tennessee processing plant a reality.

“It’s an education thing. Mom’s learning the benefit of breast milk, especially for premies, then getting over the taboo and realizing the incredible benefits (of donation),” said Pavlicek.

For Hogan, the message is simple. “Don’t throw your milk away. Donate it. Come here and drop it off.” A simple errand for a serious impact.

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and applied anthropologist. Since 2011, Cole has worked as a researcher, strategist, and community engagement specialist across the city's private, public, and non-profit sectors. Passionate about storytelling, they began contributing to High Ground News in 2017.
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