Donated breast milk demand reaches all-time high in Alberta

Three years after opening, the Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank is changing how Alberta hospitals deal with some of the smallest and sickest babies.

Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank has helped changed how hospitals treat many premature babies

Kayla Lam holds up her baby Callum after donating breast milk to the Calgary Mothers Milk Bank. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

New mom Kayla Lamb whisks into the Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank and eagerly hands over an insulated bag full of frozen breast milk. The smiles are plentiful; the joy is infectious. This is Lamb's first time donating her excess supply. Her wide-eyed son, Callum, is just five months old.

"I feel wonderful," Lamb said. "From the research that I've done, the antibodies that are in mother's milk are definitely beneficial to little babies, especially ones [whose] immune systems might be compromised."

Lamb is one of hundreds of women who have donated their surplus breast milk to the bank since it opened in 2012.

The Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank is the only community-based milk bank in the country. The non-profit organization provides tested and pasteurized breast milk to premature and sick babies whose mothers can't breast feed. 

Hospitals switch from formula

Three years after its doors opened, the milk bank is helping change how neonatal intensive care units (NICU) deal with some of their sickest patients.

"[For] the babies who receive this milk, it's just as much a medicine as it is a food for them," said executive director Jannette Festival. "The milk actually has antibodies in it. It has vitamins that the baby can absorb."

I think the best part of this is the hospitals are starting to see the babies get healthier more quickly.- Jannette Festival, Calgary Mothers Milk Bank

Before her clinic opened, Alberta's neonatal intensive care units relied almost exclusively on formula or IV feeding for the smallest and sickest babies. Now virtually all Alberta hospitals use donated milk from the Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank.

"I think the best part of this is the hospitals are starting to see the babies get healthier more quickly." Festival said. "They're pulling tubes from them. They're able to send them home earlier. And for us at the milk bank that's the most rewarding thing."

At the Foothills Medical Centre, patient care manager Robert Finch has seen this transition first-hand.

"Donor human milk has been proven to be superior to formulas, especially in a certain population," Finch said.

In the Foothills NICU, donated milk is used for the tiniest babies who can't get milk from their mothers. According to Finch, it has helped reduce bowel complications for some of these preemies.

Packages of frozen donated breast milk are sorted before being pasteurized at the Calgary Mothers Milk Bank. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

"I'm excited," Finch said. "You look at the families and the babies that come through our unit, and we've seen better outcomes already." Although studies have not yet been done, Finch believes reducing these complications is likely cutting down the length of time some babies are staying in the NICU.

Demand for donated breast milk up

As word spreads about Calgary's milk bank, demand is growing by about 50 per cent a year. According to Dr. Doug Wilson, head of obstetrics and gynecology for Alberta Health Services and board member for the Calgary Mothers' Milk Bank, the role of the organization is evolving quickly.

"It actually is becoming an Alberta milk bank or a Western Canada milk bank," Wilson said.

When it opened in 2012 the Calgary Mothers' Milk bank dispensed just over 30,000 ounces of breast milk. This year, the group is on track to distribute 150,000 ounces. It now sends milk to hospitals in B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia. Manitoba will soon be ordering from Calgary's bank as well.


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