Despite widespread acknowledgment of the healing power of breast milk, there are no milk banks in New England. The last one in the area closed in 2001. Newton resident Naomi Bar-Yam wants to change that.
Renae Brown felt helpless in her daughter’s battle to live.
Because her newborn baby Summer was born four months premature, Renae’s body wasn’t making the milk her daughter needed to survive. Formulas wouldn’t provide the nourishment she required and, despite two shots in the stomach a day, Renae couldn’t make milk.
Her hospital ordered milk from a bank in the Carolinas. And, thanks in part to the milk, Summer is a healthy 16-month old.
Calling milk from banks “liquid gold,” Renae said, “With breast milk, newborn babies don’t get as many colds and they have a better chance at surviving. Breast milk is the best thing for babies, especially premature ones. Now, knowing about milk banks, I wouldn’t have done it any differently.”
Despite widespread acknowledgment of the healing power of breast milk, there are no milk banks in New England. The last one in the area closed in 2001.Newton resident Naomi Bar-Yam wants to change that.
She is converting a second floor in the Carr School, empty except for an oversized freezer and a few posters, into a milk dispensary.
The starkly dressed room, heavy with heat during a recent summer afternoon, is all that’s needed to form the roots of a grocery store for newborns.
In a few weeks, the freezer will be stacked with jelly jars of human milk, and new mothers will be squeezing in a stop between other errands.
At least that’s the plan for Naomi Bar-Yam, who has rallied support behind a milk dispensary after the last one in the area closed.
Banked human milk is widely recognized as the best alternative to mothers’ milk in situations in which a child is born prematurely, according to Bar-Yam. Because many women are having children later in life, more children are born prematurely, resulting in an increased need for donated breast milk, Bar Yam said. But the milk would also be provided to babies whose mothers are too sick or physically unable to nurse or newborns who are adopted.
“For all the research out there, we have not and cannot reproduce human milk,” Newton resident Bar-Yam said. “Human babies were not meant to consume cow milk. Their systems aren’t meant to digest it. Milk is species specific.”
But human milk is not always widely available. Mothers looking to provide such milk to their newborns, and who are themselves unable to nurse, must special-order milk from Ohio.
The Newtonville milk bank would provide mothers with a site closer to home to get milk for their newborns. And, in the next year, Bar-Yam said they may be able to accept donations.
While milk-sharing has always been a facet of human history, the first established milk bank was opened in Vienna in 1909, according to research Bar-Yam has done. A year later, the first bank in the United States opened in Boston.
Milk banks took a big hit during the AIDS scare in the 1980s and the Human Milk Banking Association of North America introduced more rigid screening. Yet, in 40 years of modern milk banking, there has never been a documented case of an infant being harmed by donor milk, Bar-Yam said, adding “We know we are dealing with a population that’s very vulnerable.”
Bar-Yam, executive director of the nonprofit, became involved with milk sharing when she was pregnant with her third son in Israel. She donated her milk to a baby born premature, whose mother was unable to nurse.
Years later, she used stored milk to ease her father’s illness, believing in the healing powers of the substance.
“I knew that human milk has anecdotally been known to shrink tumors,” she said. “And I wanted to give [my father] more than I had [stored]. That’s when I discovered there was no milk bank in New England.”
In 2006, she gathered friends and neighbors in her Newton Centre living room to lay the foundations of what would become the Mothers Milk Bank of New England.
Marcia Marker Feld was at some of the first meetings of the group. The professor of city planning, who now works as treasurer for the nonprofit, wants to expand access to natural feeding. Feld had children in the time when women were discouraged from natural childbirth and nursing babies.
“I wanted to breastfeed,” she said. “But doctors were united against doing any such thing. They believed it would hurt the child’s immune system.” She got involved with the group to give mothers the option as to how they feed their child.
“There is an educational component to what the milk bank is doing,” she said. “We want to raise the awareness of women to know that they have these choices.”
Generally, mothers of premature babies have a more difficult time producing milk, and rely on milk bank programs to provide their children the nutrients they need to survive, Bar-Yam said.
In 2006, about 350 babies were treated in the NICU at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, among them several very low birth weight (less than 3.5 pounds) and very preterm (before 32 weeks gestation) babies, Bar-Yam said.
“The effort involved in making safe banked milk available to our most vulnerable babies is a testament to the importance of human milk for all babies,” Bar-Yam said.
Asked why milk banks have been absent from New England, Ilene Fabisch, a lactation consultant, responded that there is not enough research to prove the benefit of human milk to developing babies.
Fabisch said that those communities that have established milk banks have recognized the advantage of natural milk.
“The benefits that breast milk provides can’t be matched by animals,” said Fabisch, who serves as clinical director to the milk bank in Newton. “Babies were biologically devised to receive human milk. It benefits the immune system tremendously.”
Recognizing a need in the area, Bar-Yam approached Mayor David Cohen to inquire about a temporary space she could launch the bank. She had researched hospitals, but learned that many were short on space and not as accessible as other locations. Cohen immediately suggested the Carr School, which will have space available through August 2009.
“This is not a permanent space,” Bar-Yam said, looking around her at the empty classroom. “We don’t know the fate of this school.” She added, “But, we are an important community resource, and I am excited to start here in Newton.”
Chrissie Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.