To say it's a long milk run would be an understatement.

Donated human breast milk is being shipped from Halifax to the Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank where it's pasteurized, tested and processed for safety.

Some of that milk comes back to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax — a 7,500-kilometre round trip.

Martha Paynter is one of four Nova Scotia mothers who volunteers to pump, bag, freeze and send her breast milk to Alberta. She also went through screening and blood testing and was approved by a nurse practitioner in order to donate.

"Most people's reaction is 'Wow, you have a lot of milk.' Yes, I have no issue with supply. An extra bag a day takes me about 10 minutes,'" she said.

She's been saving her excess breast milk since giving birth to her second daughter, Aggie, in December. 

"I'm very happy to help. It's really quite easy and it makes a huge difference. It's wonderful," said Paynter.

'Milk that comes in is gone the next week'

Demand for donations, such as Paynter's, is at an all-time high, according to Jannette Festival, the executive director of the Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank. It's the only facility in the country that ships pasteurized human milk.

"Any milk that comes in is gone the next week. So whatever mums can supply we will definitely use and ship back to Nova Scotia," said Festival.

In true Nova Scotia fashion, Paynter ships her frozen milk, surrounded by gel packs and foam, in new lobster boxes. The boxes are sent by courier to Calgary. The non-profit facility covers her expenses. 

She's one of approximately 40 monthly donors and yet Calgary's bank only has enough pasteurized milk to cover three to five days. Last summer the facility had inventory lasting two months.

Hospitals making the switch

Demand is up 50 per cent a year since the facility opened three years ago, Festival says, because more hospitals are making the switch to pasteurized milk.

"The hospitals realize the premature babies that they're taking care of and trying to get healthier do fare much better on donor milk than they do formula. They're at lesser risk for diseases."

Given the demand, Festival says the milk is triaged to go to the sickest babies first.

Breast milk

Donor milk stored at the IWK Milk Room has a barcode and an identifying cap to help ensure the dosage goes to the right baby. (CBC)

"We try not to look at the borders unless we are forced to but if there is a sick baby in Halifax or if there is a very sick baby in Calgary we do try to get the milk to these babies. We've never had to say no so far, but some months it's been a little bit tight," said Festival. 

Back in the 1980s there were more than 20 milk banks around the country. But they were shut down during the tainted blood scare.

Over the last few years, the milk banks have been reborn. There are three across Canada, but none east of Toronto. The one in Montreal shut down.

IWK has a milk room

The IWK Health Centre, the largest children's hospital in Atlantic Canada, has opted to open a milk room where milk isn't just food, it's medicine.

The milk room is high-tech and secure, accessible only by dietetic technicians. The freezers have alarms — inside pasteurized milk is stored in bottles with barcodes that indicate which tiny patient has parental consent to receive dosages.

Darlene Inglis, manager of the neonatal intensive care unit, says the milk goes to some of the sickest and tiniest newborns. 

"Small babies, small premature babies or babies with surgical, [gastro-intestinal] gut problems, the most vulnerable right now," she says receive the milk.

So far the IWK has spent about $20,000 on donated milk, which Inglis says is lower than the cost to treat necrotizing enterocolitis, a common and serious intestinal disease among premature babies.

The milk is loaded with antibodies and retains most of its nutrients even after the pasteurization process. The nutrition is given to babies under three pounds. For those weighing just a pound, dosages as small as a teaspoon are administered by a syringe.

The Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank says it asked the IWK to recruit mothers to donate, but Inglis says the IWK is focused on trying to help more mothers breastfeed.

But Paynter has made her own YouTube video to take up the cause. Her three-minute video demonstrates how to ship milk.

She hopes sharing her experience will dispel attitudes that donating breast milk is strange.

"Oh, the ick factor? I think the breast is a great thing. And it's really an amazing thing what our bodies can do, that this food that we make in the first place, that's amazing, is then medicinal for an entire, adorable patient population. So that's gorgeous."

'Their efforts produce miracles'

Festival has nothing but praise for the donors.

"Their efforts produce miracles, they save lives. If you have extra milk, who wouldn't want to do that."

Paynter plans to keep donating until her baby turns a year old. She hopes that if more moms join the cause that's literally near to her heart, the region might consider opening its own milk bank or a milk depot to make it easier to drop off and ship donations to Calgary.