The new mother was desperate for breast milk. First the pumping didn’t work, and then the herbal tea her midwife suggested didn’t help. Now formula was giving her baby girl a rash.
Kelli Christensen was having a hard time providing milk for her newborn daughter, Violet. The midwife suggested finding a milk donor — a concept Christensen thought was just for the olden days. She turned to the Internet for answers and discovered a growing network of mothers willing to help, for free.
Some women donate their breast milk through Facebook groups, others through official milk banks, such as St. Luke’s Heart of America Mothers’ Milk Bank. The bank received about 150,000 ounces of milk from donors last year, more than double the amount its first year in 2012.
“Women on our end of it are so desperate, and these women are willing to help,” said Christensen, of Lawrence. “I felt so protected. It was selfless. It takes hours to pump the milk. When I would pick up the milk I would have tears in my eyes every time.”
Some mothers, like Christensen, have found best friends through milk-sharing.
She first connected with donor Amanda Stofko, 28, of Eudora, on a Facebook page for Human Milk for Human Babies. What started as messages about donating breast milk soon turned into daily conversions about life and motherhood.
“When we met, it was a like ‘Where have you been?’” said Christensen, 34. “She’s my best friend. She changed everything for me. She’s my partner helping me to be a mom.”
Over 15 months, Violet received 13,684 ounces of breast milk from 20 donors, mostly from Stofko, who was producing an abundance of milk for her son Brecken. Stofko decided to donate through Human Milk for Human Babies because it allowed her to make personal connections with mothers. The hours of pumping and packaging the milk were worth it. She was helping Christensen’s family and Christensen was helping hers.
“I knew as soon as she walked through my door that I was doing the right thing,” Stofko said. “I didn’t have any question in my mind — I wanted to become her donor.”
Human Milk for Human Babies says it’s just a network to connect mothers. It does not “support or approve of the selling of breast milk on our network, provide medical advice or clinical care or screen donors or recipients,” it says on its website.
Kaidee Mehrer, 25, of Lawrence is adopting a baby girl in August, and is hoping to induce lactation herself, because breast milk has proven healthier than formula. But she’s receiving milk from Human Milk for Human Babies donors as a backup plan. She admits that meeting up with the donors can be a little awkward at first — she’s met some at a Lee’s Summit Panera Bread. They’ll typically chat and ask questions to get to know each other. Then the donor will hand over the pumped breast milk, which is usually in plastic bags in a container of dry ice.
The mothers seeking the milk must ask the right questions — such as health history or if the mothers are on any medications — and the mothers giving milk are expected to answer honestly.
“If you’re willing to do this, you’re responsible,” Mehrer said. “The crazy people aren’t donating milk. Still, in the back of my head I do wonder at times.”
While there are websites that do allow the sale of breast milk, both eBay and Craigslist have banned the selling of “bodily fluids.” But milk sharing ads can still slip through. In a recent Kansas City Craigslist ad, a second-time mother was selling her milk for 50 cents per ounce.
To Barbara Carr, a Kansas City neonatologist, the safest way to donate breast milk is through one of the 16 hospital milk banks affiliated with the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which provides quality guidelines. Donations are screened for diseases and anything that might potentially harm a baby. St. Luke’s is the only approved milk bank in Missouri, and there are none in Kansas.
“With informal milk sharing, you’re playing Russian roulette with your baby and their milk,” said Carr, who is the medical director of the St. Luke’s milk bank. “You never know.”
Carr estimated that premature babies in America could consume 9 million ounces of breast milk a year. Since the St. Luke’s milk bank opened in 2012, donations doubled from 61,327 to 149,602 ounces.
Before mothers donate to the milk bank, they must fill out paperwork detailing their medical history, get their blood drawn and seek approval from both their doctor and their baby’s doctor. Their milk is sent mostly to 23 NICUs across the country.
Here’s how the process works: The milk is transferred into glass flasks and pooled with milk from other donors. It’s heated in a water bath and pasteurized. Samples are cultured to check for bacteria; any contaminated milk is discarded. Finally, the milk is frozen and checked one more time for bacteria growth. The milk is then shipped frozen.
More women are donating, Carr said, because the milk bank is becoming better known. There’s also the appeal of helping NICU babies.
A number of mothers have donated to work through their grief after losing a baby. This was the case for Julie Krashin, 32, of Kansas City, who has donated about 3,000 ounces of breast milk to St. Luke’s.
Last year, Krashin gave birth to twin girls at 27 weeks, but while Goldie survived, Ilana died three days later. Because she spent so much time in the NICU for Goldie, she wanted to help other babies in need.
“Breast milk couldn’t save my baby but it could save other babies,” she said. “There’s a saying in our house that Goldie gets Ilana’s kisses, but other babies get Ilana’s milk.” Now Krashin is pregnant again and hopes to donate more milk after this baby is born.
While the mothers who donate to St. Luke’s aren’t told who receives their milk, it’s common for the women who use Human Babies for Human Milk to stay in touch. Christensen regularly keeps in contact with six of the mothers who donated and gives them updates about Violet.
She does it out of gratitude, but also because of the bonds formed from the milk-sharing sisterhood, she said.
“I feel like they’re a part of her.”
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For those interested in donating milk to St. Luke’s or learning more about criteria, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (816) 932-4888.