Donations to breast milk banks tend to decrease during the holidays, experts say — but the needs of premature babies are urgent as ever.
There are four milk donation centres in the country, in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. But Debbie Stone, director of Rogers Hixon Ontario Human Milk Bank, told HuffPost Canada that milk donations tend to slow down around the holidays.
“Like everyone else, mothers of newborn infants get very busy over the holiday season,” Stone said. “That has a tendency to alter their pumping routines, which may decrease their milk supply.”
Another factor, she said, is freezer space. Donors typically store excess breast milk in their freezers, but those freezers tend to fill up with baking and other holiday food, and “as condos and appliances get smaller and smaller in some areas, there truly is a bit of a limited freezer space,” Stone explained.
Milk banks help babies in a number of different ways. While formula is a good option for lots of parents who can’t or choose not to breastfeed, breast milk is still the way doctors recommend babies get the nutrients they need and boost their immune systems. And in the case of premature babies, breast milk is often needed.
Babies born prematurely are at a higher risk of a potentially deadly inflammation called necrotizing enterocolitis, Stone explained. Studies show that breast milk can significantly decrease that risk. There were 491 cases of the condition reported in Alberta between 2006 and 2011, the vast majority in premature babies.
But many mothers whose babies are born prematurely have trouble producing breast milk. Their bodies may not be ready to start lactating, and the stress of a premature birth can often contribute to the problem.
According to the Toronto milk bank, about 70 per cent of the babies in Ontario intensive care unit have parents who can’t produce enough breast milk.
Early winter isn’t the only seasonal change in donations that milk banks see, Stone said. They tend to get more donations around June, “as mothers are attempting to empty their freezers for popsicle and ice cream season.” And then it dips down again later in the summer, as many people tend to pump less while they’re on vacation.
A video on the milk bank’s website outlines strategies donors can implement to increase their milk supply for more donations, including pumping an additional ten minutes after their own baby nurses.
There used to be many more milk banks in Canada, until fear about the spread of HIV and AIDS in the mid-1980s shut the majority of them down. Now, donor milk is screened extensively by the country’s four donation centres, which all interview candidates, screen milk for disease and then pasteurize it.
But the need for breast milk is so great that some parents have resorted to selling it online, something Health Canada has expressly warned not to do. In parts of the country that are underserved by milk banks, hospitals will often purchase donor milk from elsewhere. The IWK Health Centre in Halifax purchases milk from the Calgary milk bank, for instance, and two hospitals in Winnipeg buy donor milk from the U.S.
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