How one N.J. hospital’s donor milk program is helping protect every baby

Photo courtesy of Francis Cauffman Architects

Got (breast) milk? 

Your neighborhood milk bank does. 

According to Massachusetts-based Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, milk banks are agencies that collect breast milk from mothers who have more than their babies need; they then screen, pasteurize, test and dispense the milk primarily to premature and sick babies whose mothers don’t have enough milk for them. Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast and more than two dozen similar counterparts across the United States are members of the 36-year-old Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), the only professional association for nonprofit donor human milk banking in the United States and Canada. And it’s a movement that Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston is proud to be a part of. 

Since becoming one of the first hospitals in New Jersey to provide donor milk to babies in its neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) years ago, Saint Barnabas Medical Center eventually extended its donor milk program to include babies in the well-baby nursery in August 2019 and fully understands the importance of its milk bank operation. 

“Some mothers experience challenges with breastfeeding or building a milk supply for a multitude of medical reasons, including breast surgery, thyroid disease, hormone imbalances and many others,” explained Suzanne O’Neill, RN, IBCLC, lactation consultant at Saint Barnabas Medical Center (SBMC).  “Additionally, birth complications such as postpartum hemorrhage or a baby’s premature birth may result in delays in breastfeeding and/or a mother’s production of a full milk supply. This is when donor milk can be used as a temporary bridge until a mother’s own milk supply increases.” 

According to O’Neill, “milk donors are healthy, lactating women with a surplus of milk, and they undergo a multistep screening process before the donating begins.” She said that bereaved and surrogate mothers can also donate and noted that milk donors offer their extra milk to help others on a purely voluntary basis. 

Saint Barnabas Medical Center’s first milk bank donor poses at the official August 2019 grand opening of the extension of the hospital’s donor milk program to include babies in the well-baby nursery. Photo courtesy of RWJBarnabas Health

A Natal Need 

“Prior to expanding our donor milk program, the only appropriate alternative for breast milk supplementation was to offer formula,” said Sarah Rieber, MSN, APN-C, RN, IBCLC, lactation consultant at SBMC. “Our goal has always been to provide safe milk for babies, and evidence suggests that protecting the breastfeeding relationship in the early postpartum days extends how long mothers exclusively breastfeed. Using donor milk when there’s a medical reason for supplementation is an ideal way to provide continuous breastfeeding. 

“Recognizing the extraordinary health benefits and value of donor milk, we thought it was essential to support our community by creating a milk depot at SBMC,” Reiber continued. “Our milk depot operates in partnership with Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast (MMBNE) and serves as a convenient drop-off location for approved breast milk donors.” 

According to Reiber, donated milk is dropped off at SBMC, where it’s stored and then shipped to MMBNE; once there, the donated milk is tested, pasteurized under strict regulations and safety guidelines, and then dispensed to babies in hospitals or in private homes (with a prescription) throughout the Northeast. “Pasteurized donor breast milk offers a safe alternative to informal and unregulated milk sharing between women — something that happens more often than you’d expect and is often found to be unsafe,” she said. 

Kim Rosales, MSN, RN, CNML, administrative director of nursing at SBMC, confirmed that most if not all hospitals offer donor milk to premature babies in the NICU because breast milk significantly reduces their chances of developing necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious gastrointestinal problem largely affecting premature babies. “But breast milk offers a multitude of health benefits to all babies, so we extended our donor milk program to babies in our well-baby nursery,” she said, “though this is still an emerging concept and very few other hospitals offer such services.

“After women who are interested in becoming a breast milk donor are screened by the milk bank and approved as a donor, they can drop their extra milk off at SBMC, and we make it as convenient as possible by having a drive-up drop-off process,” said Rosales, whose hospital stores, labels and ships the milk to the milk bank under exacting protocols. 

Pasteurized donor milk collected from Saint Barnabas Medical Center’s Milk Depot in Livingston. Photo courtesy of RWJBarnabas Health

A Full Circle Solution 

Since the “grand opening” of SBMC’s extended donor milk program in August 2019, “we’ve collected over 9,000 ounces of donated breast milk and have been able to provide pasteurized donor milk to hundreds of babies,” said Susan DiRocco, BSN, RN, IBCLC, clinical director at SMBC. 

DiRocco and her colleagues recognize that donor milk isn’t for everyone. “It’s a personal choice, but our organization is happy to be able to offer it to those who need and want it,” she said. “Families that wish to exclusively breastfeed but can’t for whatever reason are incredibly happy to have an option that avoids formula and allows their baby to have the full benefits of exclusive breastfeeding. And when our donors drop off milk at our milk depot, they’re excited to be supporting other families and babies. Several of the donors are women who themselves had to use donor milk for a period of time and are so grateful to have had that option and to be at a point where they can give back by donating their own milk,” DiRocco said. “For them, it all comes full circle.”   

Based on the many health benefits of breast milk — which provides ideal nutrition to babies as well as valuable protection against such illnesses as ear, respiratory and gut infections as well as obesity, asthma and diabetes — DiRocco hopes to promote greater awareness and support of milk bank services. 

“We want to thank all those who graciously donate their extra breast milk to milk depots like ours and help provide such a valuable resource to other babies,” she said.     

Milk donors who have completed the donor screening process can make an appointment to drop off milk at Saint Barnabas Medical Center’s new milk depot (94 Old Short Hills Road in Livingston) by calling 973-322-5684. For guidelines on donating milk, visit Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast at 

A longtime NJ Advance Media/The Star-Ledger contributor, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey-based writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.

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