BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – For many families, the choice between breast feeding and formula feeding is deeply personal.
But some families with premature or other fragile babies are left with little choice. They need to give their infant breast milk, whether the infant’s mom can make the milk they need or not.
“Premature infants, born so early, are at risk for a devastating illness called necrotizing enterocolitis, and donor milk helps to avoid the risk of them coming down with that disease,” explained Julie Bouchet-Horwitz, founder & executive director of the New York Milk Bank.
The New York Milk Bank collects and processes donated milk from nursing mothers across the state to go to NICUs and other babies in need.
Little Morgan Gruenauer was one of them.
At 20 weeks old, she is doing very well at home in Depew with her family. But she got a rough start to life.
She was delivered 11 weeks early because of health complications with her mother, and weighed only two and a half pounds.
“It was scary, especially being so unexpected. It wasn’t our plan for sure,” Morgan’s mom, Ashley Gruenauer, told News 4.
Morgan spent 66 days in the NICU at Sisters Hospital getting round the clock care and taking in as much breast milk as she could. The breast milk was put in Morgan’s feeding tube until she was able to begin latching.
Initially, the breast milk Morgan was getting was not from her mother.
“Just because she was so premature, I wasn’t producing enough milk in the beginning,” Ashley Gruenauer explained.
That’s where donors like Lindsay Vance come in. Donating milk for other mothers and babies has been a personal mission for the Orchard Park woman.
“If they can’t breastfeed because of the circumstances, I knew that I could do something to help them,” she told News 4.
Vance’s sons Alex and Ari both spent time in the NICU themselves. But, she was fortunate enough to make more milk than her kids needed.
She ended up being able to pump milk for her youngest during the work week, then pump specifically to donate over the weekends.
“With my first I ended up having some oversupply, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know what I was doing period,” she said. “And I knew with this one if I did end up with the same oversupply, I wanted to do something good with it.”
“I’ve always been a blood donor, so I figured this was just another benefit that I could give to the community,” Vance added.
She recently dropped off the final 50 ounces of her freezer stash at Baby’s Sweet Beginnings in Lancaster to be shipped to the Milk Bank.
“It feels really good. I’m really proud to have done this,” Vance said.
Since the New York Milk Bank opened in 2016, Western New York women alone have donated 75,000 ounces of breast milk.
Each donor has to go through rigorous health screenings, including blood tests, which are paid for by the Milk Bank. Their doctor and their child’s pediatrician also have to give the green light.
The donors drop off their frozen milk at a designated depot, where it is then shipped to the New York Milk Bank’s facilities in Valhalla, New York.
The Milk Bank pasteurizes and tests the milk before distributing it to dozens of hospitals across New York State, as well as Vermont and New Jersey.
As more hospitals begin using donor milk in their NICUs, and more insurance companies begin covering donor milk, even for babies outside the hospital, demand has surged.
So, the New York Milk Bank recently lowered its minimum donation requirements from 150 ounces to 100.
As always, they will also take donated milk in any amount from bereaved mothers, who are giving gifts in their babies’ memories.
Over the summer, motorcyclists from across the state helped deliver donated milk from the New York Milk Bank to hospitals and other babies in need. Donor milk also goes to adopted and foster babies, as well as babies outside the hospital with prescriptions for breast milk because of medical needs.
“Cow’s milk is made for cows and goat’s milk is made for goats, and humans make human milk that is specifically designed to help grow the brain and protect the baby from infections,” the Milk Bank’s founder, Bouchet-Horwitz, said. “They grow better, they have less infections, allergies, obesity, diabetes if even full term infants are given human milk.”
Baby’s Sweet Beginnings in Lancaster is becoming a Milk Bank dispensary, where families with prescriptions can get the pasteurized donor milk.
It was also the first milk depot in the area, and can accept even the largest donations for shipment to the Milk Bank.
“We did have a mom bring in 32 gallons one time. We have 27 square feet of freezer space,” said Polly Thoman, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and the owner of Baby’s Sweet Beginnings.
“I know the need for the donor milk,” she added. “I also have three premature children myself. Although I was able to feed them, I know other babies in the NICU were not getting breast milk.”
There are, of course, more informal options.
Some families turn to Facebook groups like Human Milk for Human Babies or Eats on Feets to get breast milk directly from a donor.
But, that can be risky.
“As a lactation consultant, I know that in breast milk, things can be passed, such as Hep C, HIV, medications,” Thoman explained, “so it is controversial.”
“I just thought that this was the right fit for me,” donor Lindsay Vance said when asked why she wanted to donate to the New York Milk Bank instead of another option.
Morgan Gruenauer’s parents say the milk they received from the New York Milk Bank at Sisters Hospital was a blessing, helping give their daughter the best start.
“Just to see her go from being in the hospital to the point she’s at now, where she’s home and she’s comfortable and she’s growing, it’s just the miracle of life,” Morgan’s dad, Brian Gruenauer said.
Now, Morgan’s mom is looking into becoming a donor herself.
“Once [Morgan] gets on solid foods, my wife and I have already talked. She’s talked about donating,” Brian Gruenauer told News 4. “And we encourage everyone who has a child, who has friends, who has family, to get the word out there that the Milk Bank is a thing.”
“It’s a great thing to have and it can help so many people,” he added.
If you’d like to learn more about how you can become a donor, click here.