A Mother’s Gift: University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview’s Milk Bank

Edina resident Megan Nickel finds a very unique way to help fellow mothers, thanks to U of M Medical Center Fairview’s milk bank.

When Edina resident, Megan Nickel, found that her fourth child would not take a bottle, she was left to pump her extra breast milk, and was soon faced with a freezer full of small white bags.  “I've heard mothers refer to breast milk as ‘liquid gold,’ and that is sort of how it felt,” she says. “I hated to throw it away.” With the help of a program at the University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview, Nickel avoided pouring a valuable resource down the drain.

More than a half million babies in the United States—that's one in every eight—are born premature each year. Very low weight (less than three pounds) and ill babies may not be able to feed at the breast, but more significantly, their mother’s milk may not have the level of proteins and calories required to help them grow, get well and thrive. University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview is an important part of the answer to this critical challenge for the tiniest newborns in our community.

Human milk contains antibodies that cannot be reproduced or found anywhere else. “Fortified human milk (the standard for low-birth-weight babies in intensive care) has been shown to reduce the number of deaths by NEC, a severe intestinal disease, and to reduce the chances of contracting several other severe infections,” says Mark J. Spitzack, Milk Bank Coordinator at Fairview. Until now, human milk fortifiers, which are added to a mother’s milk, have been made of cow’s milk. Prolacta, a bioscience company, is the first and only producer of fortifiers that are made entirely from human breast milk.

Nickel finds this comforting. “If I ever had a premie I'm sure I'd want something 'natural' and easy for their little body to digest,” she says. Donors like Nickel submit to rigorous screening procedures that include detailed application, restriction on medications, home freezer requirements, a blood draw, collecting, labelling and storing milk according to set guidelines, and dropping off donations to a Fairview staff member who meets them, literally, “curbside.” 

Fairview performs the recruiting and testing of donors, then ships the milk to Prolacta, where it is tested, treated, pasteurized and formulated into products which are sold to hospitals around the country, and also sent to Africa. In partnership with Prolacta, Fairview has become the first hospital-based milk bank in Minnesota. The next closest banks are at the University of Iowa and in Michigan.  

Spitzack attests to the joy and fulfillment that local donors feel by donating their extra milk. Even milk that’s been stored up to 10 months can be accepted for donation as long as the freezer was cold enough. “When my baby was first born, I had a lot of extra milk every day. As he starts eating solids I'll have extra again,” explains Nickel. “I really only donate the extra milk I have, so I don't feel like I'm sacrificing the health of my own child.”

Preterm babies, in critical need of  the best chance they can get to stay alive, benefit from the milk of human kindness that donations from a nursing mother provide. “I'm sure some people would think it's strange to share milk,” reflects Nickel, “but I think [my baby] Luke would be proud that he shared and helped another baby out.”


Where to Donate

* Fairview Health Services accepts local milk donation. Proceeds fund the training of staff to help women feed their babies, especially in the first hours and days after birth, as well as providing  outpatient lactation consultation.

* Helping Hands Bank accepts shipped milk donations, in cooperation with Prolacta, and donates proceeds to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

* International Breast Milk Project provides shipped, unfortified donor milk to infants in need in South Africa.

* The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) is a multidisciplinary group of health care providers that promotes, protects and supports donor milk banking. Their website provides a milk bank locator.