Help Haiti: Would You Donate Breastmilk for Babies?

The calls came from orphanages in Haiti to churches throughout the United States: "Can you send us breast milk?"

With countless premature, sick, injured and hungry babies they were in need of sustenance, fast. Something akin to the child's game of telephone ensued, and eventually a call made it to the International Breast Milk Project, a non-profit organization that, for years, has been organizing the logistics of sending pasteurized, donated breast milk to South Africa and disaster areas, like the Philippines following a typhoon. (According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the cases of a natural disaster when a mother's milk is not available, safe donor breast milk is the next best option. Milk donors are screened by the milk bank before the donation is accepted).

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Executive Director Amanda Nickerson answered the phone. She wanted to help, and so did other organizations, such as The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC), International Lactation Consultant Association/ United States Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA/USLCA), and La Leche League International (LLLI), but the question remained: where to begin in a country whose infrastructure had been decimated by an earthquake? Donated breast milk needs to be frozen-how could they arrange for that in a country with little electrical power, much less freezer space?

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Nickerson and other women across the country mobilized. It took a lot of phone calls, service donations, milk donations and planning, but on Thursday, January 28 the first shipment of breast milk arrived in Haiti. The milk had been donated to HMBANA milk banks, where it was pasteurized and flash frozen. Quick International Courier then donated their services and picked up nearly 500 ounces of milk (stored in three-ounce bottles) in Ohio, put them in a cooler on dry ice and sent them on a Southwest flight (also donated) to South Florida. Then they were placed on a chartered flight (the space was also donated) and arrived in Port-au-Prince, where they were transferred by helicopter to naval hospital ship USNS Comfort, where there was available freezer space for storage. The milk will be given to some of the most sick and needy children of Haiti.

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Nickerson is relieved that they were able to help, even if just a small amount. She says she doesn't know if more shipments will follow. It's dependent upon a variety of factors ranging from how much donated milk is available, to the basic transportation logistics. Either way, she encourages interested lactating women to go to and find the milk bank closest to them (those who don't live near a milk bank can also mail their milk in). If the milk doesn't make it to Haiti, Nickerson emphasizes that it will never go to waste-it's used in Neonatal Intensive Care Units, daily, across the country.

"If it's used for a baby in the United States or if it's used for a baby in Haiti we want to encourage donor banking in general, and let women know that this is an option," she says.

For more insight into why women might consider donating breast axZmilk we spoke with Gina Ciagne, who's the director of breastfeeding relations and outreach for Lansinoh Laboratories. She is a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) and a La Leche League International-trained breastfeeding peer counselor and has worked with many breastfeeding mothers. Ciagne shared these tips about breastfeeding in emergencies:

1. What's the importance of breast milk in Haiti right now? In what ways is it better than formula or other substitutes?

Breast milk is very important to Haitian children and babies because it can protect them from illnesses like diarrhea and pneumonia. It is understandable that people think of babies separated from their mothers and want to provide a quick solution like formula, but that is to the detriment of their current and long-term health.

Breast milk contains anti-infective properties that protect infants and children from malnutrition, diarrhea, pneumonia and other infections. Breast milk and breastfeeding offer protection from infection, which is crucial in an emergency situation where people have little to no access to a safe water supply and sanitation.

2. What should we know about breast milk/nursing in emergencies?

It is important to understand that UNICEF and other similar breastfeeding-supportive organizations work quickly to provide interventions, including supporting the initiation and duration of breastfeeding, relactation of breastfeeding for a woman who has weaned her child, and the identification of women who can act as wet nurses and provide breast milk for infants in need. Although it is not an ideal situation, mothers who do not have access to food or may be malnourished can still breastfeed. And, although stress can sometimes interfere with milk flow, it does not necessarily affect milk production as long as a mom or wet nurse and baby can stay together to initiate and continue with breastfeeding. In fact, breastfeeding actually lowers stress in mothers and infants, which is extremely important in the current situation in Haiti.

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3. Are there any dangers associated with children drinking donated breast milk?

In an emergency situation it is important that babies are breastfed to protect them from infections, malnutrition and complications that can arise from using formula. In these situations, a full screening may not be possible and the protection breast milk provides is crucial to stem related consequences that can arise from feeding artificial baby milk substitutes.

In an ideal situation, a mom who is going to donate her milk to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America ( milk bank will be screened with a blood test to ensure her overall health and the bank will do checks as far as the mothers lifestyle to ensure that she does not smoke or use illegal drugs or have an infectious disease that can be transmitted. The milk is screened and processed in order to meet the needs of the premature or ill infants it will go to help. The process has been put in place to ensure that there are no dangers associated with donor milk feeding.

4. Why donate?

Donating human milk is essentially saving a life. Premature, ill infants, or infants-in-need can thrive on human milk because it is full of anti-infective and immune building properties that cannot be replicated in an artificial baby milk substitute.

Breastfeeding is about more than just feeding. It has an affect on the health of the baby insofar as it reduces the risk of ear infections, diabetes (types 1 and 2), respiratory infections, diarrhea, obesity, and some childhood cancers like leukemia. Breastfeeding is the best preventive medicine and it is what nature intended.

In the current emergency in Haiti, it is important to donate to an organization that supports breastfeeding in emergency situations. Organizations like UNICEF and Save the Children are equipped on the ground to put donated funds to practical use.

5. What are some things women in the US should consider when thinking about donating?

Contact the Human Milk Banking Association to find a local milk bank where they can donate their milk. Speak with the milk bank about the process, what it will entail, and how the milk will be used. Understand that while your milk may not be able to be donated to Haiti, there are many children in need in the US and Canada and your donation will not be in vain. It will be used to help a baby in need and that is a gift that only a breastfeeding mom can provide.

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By Kate Silver for