Breast milk shortages are not something most of us think about– unless you are a new mother. NICU units all around the country rely upon safely stored breast milk from donors, but they are running out. During the early start of the pandemic, milk banks had more than they could ask for.
Many moms found themselves in remote working situations which allowed for easy breastfeeding. HMBANA reported a 13% increase in 2020 from the year prior. However, the breastmilk stash quickly evaporated as parents returned to the office in 2021 causing a reverse trend in supply.
The Human Milk Banking Association of Northern America (HMBANA) said current milk supply is being used up as quickly as it becomes available. Demand is going up and donations are going down.
At all 31 milk banks in the US and Canada associated with HMBANA, milk donations are declining, down as much as 20% in some places. Milk bank directors say they are not at a crisis point yet, but they will be if shortages continue.
“Demand has been surging in hospitals, primarily,” said Lindsay Groff, the executive director for the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). “At the same time, supply has dipped.”
Factors such as a lack of workplace resources, like a dedicated pumping space or sufficient breaks are contributing to the lack of breastmilk supplies as moms struggle to balance breastfeeding with work. The struggle to breastfeed is amplified by insufficient parental leave benefits. This is especially true for hourly or blue-collar workers, making long-term breastfeeding a privilege and not realistic for many new working moms.
Donated Breast Milk is Critical for Treating Vulnerable Infants
Donated breast milk is a powerful resource for medically fragile infants – those that are “too small and too soon and too sick”, as Kim Updegrove, executive director of Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin, puts it – to overcome a range of potentially devastating conditions, from prematurity complications to heart and stomach problems. Necrotizing enterocolitis, an inflammation of the intestines, is a leading cause of death for premature babies, but breast milk helps to prevent these conditions.
“Babies that are in the NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] do so much better if they have human milk,” said Denise O’Connor, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank. “They have less infections, less sepsis, less risks for retinopathy of prematurity, which is a major cause of blindness in preterm babies.”
An estimated 78 million babies – or three in five – are not breastfed within the first hour of life, putting them at higher risk of death and disease and making them less likely to continue breastfeeding, say UNICEF and WHO in a new report. Most of these babies are born in low- and middle-income countries.
“When it comes to the start of breastfeeding, timing is everything. In many countries, it can even be a matter of life or death,” says Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “Yet each year, millions of newborns miss out on the benefits of early breastfeeding and the reasons – all too often – are things we can change. Mothers simply don’t receive enough support to breastfeed within those crucial minutes after birth, even from medical personnel at health facilities.”
Breast Milk Banking Networks Are Crucial
Access to safe blood and blood products has long been considered an integral component to delivering quality care. Identified as a crucial part of lifesaving treatments and therapies, a global regulatory framework and supportive programs exist to ensure quality standards for collection, safety, and storage. In stark contrast, the collection, banking, and delivery of safe, donated human milk to newborns who do not have access to their own mother’s milk, and need milk to survive their first days or weeks of life are noticeably absent.
In vulnerable populations, it is noted that approximately 32 million newborns are in desperate need for breast milk due to prematurity, or low birth weight. Statistics indicate a non-breastfed child’s risk of death is six times higher than that of a breastfed child.
Human milk consumption—through breastfeeding and other practices—is one of the most efficacious and cost-effective interventions available to combat infant mortality and nutritional deficits. Organic breastfeeding is not always viable, and the best alternative is to provide donor human milk through human milk banking.
What Breast Banks Need to Know About Storing Breast Milk Correctly
Storage considerations for diminishing breast milk supplies are more important now than ever. Although more than 600 human milk banks exist around the world, each has had to independently develop systems for implementation, without a universal set of guidance standards or best practices. Health organizations such as WHO, and the CDC actively maintain some guidelines aimed at preserving breast milk, but we are far from a globalized initiative.
PATH, a non-profit community driven organization, is working hard towards bridging this gap. Now, through intensive collaboration with global policy and technical leaders in newborn health and nutrition and human milk banking, PATH has developed Strengthening Human Milk Banking: A Resource Toolkit for Operating & Integrating Human Milk Banks. Additionally, with the impact experienced during COVID-19 pandemic, many protective measures came into focus, especially in poverty-stricken nations and communities.
Breast Milk Best Practices
Many factors can affect how long breast milk can be stored in various locations, such as storage temperature, temperature fluctuations, and cleanliness while expressing and handling breast milk. These factors make it difficult to recommend exact times for storing breast milk in various locations.
How long does expressed breast milk keep?
How long you can safely keep expressed breast milk depends on the cold-storage method. Consider these general guidelines for healthy infants:
Room temperature. Freshly expressed breast milk can be kept at room temperature for up to six hours. (77°F or colder) However, it is optimal to use or safely store the breast milk within four hours, especially if the room is warm.
Insulated cooler. Freshly expressed breast milk can be stored in an insulated cooler with ice packs for up to one day.
Refrigerator. Freshly expressed breast milk can be stored in the back of the refrigerator for up to four days in clean conditions. However, it is optimal to use or freeze the milk within three days.
Medical Refrigeration. Medical refrigeration is preferred because they are designed differently than consumer grade refrigerators. They have many advantages towards the safe keeping of liquid gold or breast milk such as consistent temperature controls preventing premature spoilage or contamination.
Deep freezer. Freshly expressed breast milk can be stored in the back of a deep freezer for up to 12 months but using the frozen milk within six months is optimal.
Label the breast milk with the date it was expressed.
Do not store breast milk in the door of the refrigerator or freezer. This will help protect the breast milk from temperature changes from the door opening and closing. When possible, use medical refrigeration.
If you do not think you will use freshly expressed breast milk within 4 days, freeze it right away. This will help to protect the quality of the breast milk.
When freezing breast milk:
Store lesser amounts to avoid wasting milk that might not be finished. Store in 2 to 4 ounces or the amount offered at one feeding.
Leave about one inch of space at the top of breast milk containers because it expands as it freezes.
If you deliver breast milk to a childcare provider, clearly label the container with the child’s name. Talk to your childcare provider about any other requirements for labeling and storing breast milk.
K2 Scientific Partners with Breast Milk Banks and NICU Units
K2 offers a wide range of medical refrigeration and freezer units. Many of our units are designed to fit seamlessly into NICU units and offer reliable cold-storage for easy access.