When Cindy Li was pregnant, she had heard about donor milk, but never thought she would need it.
“I took a prenatal class that told us about donor milk,” says the Burquitlam resident. “I didn’t think that had anything to do with me. I was expecting a healthy baby.”
The majority of donated breast/chest milk is used to feed premature and ill babies at 14 neonatal intensive care units across the province.
All Cindy’s health check-ups were good and her family had no history of complications. But, at 32 weeks, she started bleeding and went to the hospital. Five days later, on May 30, Ethan was born, weighing just over four pounds.
Cindy had been planning to feed her baby with formula, but reconsidered after talking to doctors.
“I was thinking of just using formula because I didn’t pay much attention to the difference between breast milk or formula,” says Cindy. “Because I was going to deliver early, I started to rethink everything. Doctors educated me more about breast milk. I thought, if I have an early delivery, then I better give my baby the best he can get. That’s when I changed my mind and decided to try breast milk over formula.”
Milk from a baby’s own mother is always the first choice. When her milk isn’t available, donor milk is the next best thing.
After Ethan was born, he spent a month in Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
“For the first week, my milk didn’t come in,” Cindy says. “I was very thankful and I feel very lucky I was able to give him donor milk.”
Most parents with premature babies struggle to establish their milk production. Human milk has antibodies and immune factors that help protect babies from short- and long-term illnesses.
Cindy returned home with Ethan, where she continued to breast-feed.
“I thought I was very skinny and I wouldn’t produce enough milk. I bought a lot of formula to supplement, but I didn’t use any of it. I produce more than Ethan needs.”
Cindy has now signed up to be a milk donor herself.
“In the hospital, I thought, in the future if I have enough, I will sign up to give back to help others,” she says. “I filled the fridge and I was happy to donate. Hopefully someone else can benefit from it.”
Ethan is now almost five months and more than triple his birth weight.
Cindy’s donations are much-needed.
The milk bank currently has less than an average month’s supply and needs several months to meet upswings in demand as well as the fluctuation in donations.
“We have empty shelves when they should be full,” says Frances Jones, the program coordinator for the BC Women’s Provincial Milk Bank. “We are concerned we soon won’t have sufficient stock to meet the need. It’s important that we have several months of raw milk in the freezer.”
The milk bank now has about 13,000 ounces in stock and distributes about 14,000 ounces per month, on average.
“Donors ‘retire’ on an ongoing basis and currently we need more milk donors,” says Frances. “They come from around the province and some, like Cindy, ‘pay it forward’ when they go on to successfully breast-feed after their child received donor milk in hospital.”
The milk bank screens milk donors, and collects and heat-treats (pasteurizes) donated milk before distributing it to B.C. hospitals. This feeds about 4,500 babies each year.
Milk donors are healthy women who have delivered within the past 18 months and have more milk than they need.
Before attempting to drop off milk to any of the 28 milk collection depots across the province, you must complete the screening process and call the depot you plan to use to confirm times and location for drop off.
Prospective donors can get information on milk donation on the BC Women’s website or call 604-875-3743.
Parents who would like donor milk for their baby are encouraged to speak with their physician.