Tucked away in the sprawling complex of Maine’s largest hospital is a freezer the staff call a hope chest. Inside this unremarkable looking cold storage unit are bags and bags of donated breast milk.

“It’s the best gift a mother can give,” said Kate Johnson, a lactation consultant and nurse at Maine Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit and project coordinator for the milk bank drop-off site at the hospital. “It’s the gift of hope.”

“Moms really want to help each other out,” she said. “They want every baby to have a fighting chance.”

This is the only program of its kind in Maine, and since it began in the fall of 2012 the program has collected and donated more than 10,500 ounces of breast milk to the Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast in Newton, Mass.

There the milk is tested for bacterial contamination, pasteurized and then shipped to hospitals and individuals, who have infants in need of the healthy start only breast milk can provide.

“There are plenty of moms who have concerns about their milk supply, but there are also moms who have an abundance of milk,” said Kara Kaikini, a lactation consultant and parent education coordinator at Maine Med’s Family Birth Center who helped organize the donation program. “Their freezers are overflowing with milk and they don’t want to throw it away.”


In the past, these moms with excess pumped breast milk faced the grim prospect of tossing all that liquid gold in the trash.

Now Maine moms have the option of donating their breast milk to help the tiniest and most fragile babies.

“Infants that are less than 1,500 grams when they’re born qualify to receive donor milk if their mom doesn’t have enough milk,” Kaikini said. “Especially for low-birth-weight infants, it’s like medicine for them.”

Feeding preterm infants breast milk rather than formula cuts the risk of a number of diseases, including the often fatal necrotizing enterocolitis that takes far too many premature infants.

Last April, Maine Med changed its policies and began feeding its highest risk infants pasteurized breast milk instead of formula.

“I clearly remember a few years ago before we started using the donor milk telling a mother that we’d have to give her preterm baby formula,” Johnson said. “She cried and cried.”


“There’s no argument anymore,” Kaikini said. “There is so much research-based evidence that breast milk is the best for babies.”

While many mothers of premature infants pump their breast milk to feed their babies, others are unable to do so.

“As a NICU nurse, I see women struggling with producing enough milk,” Johnson said. “Babies born at 23 weeks don’t have a suck-swallow reflex. Babies can’t latch at the breast until 34 to 35 weeks of life. That’s a really long time to pump for a committed mother.”

Mothers who struggle to produce enough milk – or are prevented from doing so by surgery or medications – and their babies now benefit from donated breast milk while staying at Maine Medical Center.

More than 20 mothers have donated milk through the new drop-off site since the program started. The largest single donation was 1,900 ounces of breast milk.

Moms interested in donating milk can begin collecting it right away.


But before they can donate the milk, Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast must approve them as donors.

First the milk bank screens potential donors over the phone. If everything sounds good, the mother is then sent a blood test kit and paperwork.

Assuming everything checks out, within four to six weeks she can start donating milk.

Donor mothers must be nonsmokers, have an infant under a year old and be free of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis. Mothers also must be willing to donate at least 150 ounces of milk.

Moms whose infants have died or were stillborn are allowed to donate even if they have less than 150 ounces of milk.

“This can be a really healing option for bereaved moms,” Kaikini said. “We want to give them the option to continue the lactation process, whether it’s for one day or three months or however long they want.”


“According to the CDC, there were 325,000 low-birth-weight babies born in 2010,” Johnson said. “In 2011, the Human Milk Bank Association was only able to collect 2 million ounces. That’s only seven ounces for every low-birth-weight baby born across North America. Clearly that’s not enough.”

But through the program at Maine Med, local moms are working to increase the supply.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at avery.kamila@gmail.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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