UI breast milk bank reaches low levels


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Twin boys. Two pounds. Two and a half months early.

Tightly nestled in mother's embrace, with their miniature hands pressed gently against their tiny faces, Piers and Paul received a dose of human donor breast milk.

Holding her sons, Julie Heidger said the milk donations were "truly a gift," because the premature birth of Piers and Paul prevented her from being able to nurse them herself.

"Every day, I see my baby boys getting stronger and bigger, and I am so thankful for the breast milk the hospital provided," Heidger said. "I will never be able to adequately express how grateful I am."

The University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics collects, stores, and distributes human breast milk to help nurture babies — especially preemies — through the Mother's Milk Bank of Iowa, Iowa's only milk bank.

The Milk Bank is asking lactating mothers for donations because its incoming milk level is "critically low."

The Milk Bank has about a month's supply of pasteurized milk, and Jean Drulis, the director and cofounder of the Mother's Milk Bank of Iowa, said the demand for donor human milk is rising.

"It's a week-by-week struggle," she said. "We have empty shelves in our freezers. I wish for them to become full once again. Human milk can be a matter of life or death."

The Milk Bank dispensed more than 69,000 ounces of milk in 2010; based on its current practice, Drulis expects the number to climb 15 percent in 2011.

Human breast milk provides nutrients that formula cannot, because breastfeeding provides many benefits to infants including an enriched immune system, reduced risk of chronic diseases, and enhanced feeding tolerance.

"Mothers produce the most incredible life-sustaining liquid that not only nourishes their infant but protects him or her, too," Drulis said.

The mother also benefits from breastfeeding by decreasing the risk for breast and ovarian cancer, she said.

"She has the satisfaction of knowing that she has given her infant the best start in life," she said.

Nurses help feed Piers and Paul every three hours but not always by a bottle. Heidger said the bottle can be tiresome for the "little guys," so the milk containers have tubes connected to the babies' noses.

One donor can testify to this.

Laura Bonebrake's son was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and relied on donor breast milk while she was unable to make it.

"It really helps [the preemies] recover faster," she said. "When I could do it, I knew it was something I really wanted to do."

Bonebrake said the process of donating milk is simple. It requires filling out a questionnaire and having one's blood drawn.

Heidger said she feels blessed to be at a hospital that believes in the milk program, especially with her twin boys currently in the intensive-care unit.

"It made my hospital experience so much better knowing that my babies were receiving milk," Heidger said.

She expressed her gratitude for the mothers who donated the milk.

"I owe the mothers who donated the milk so much," she said. "There are no words to express my gratitude. My babies are now five pounds, and it's just so remarkable to see that."

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