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Donations to Indiana's only milk bank for infants aren’t keeping up with increased demand

milk

(Devan Ridgway, WFIU/WTIU News)

The Milk Bank–which distributes donor milk to premature, ill, and other needing infants across the Midwest–has been experiencing shortages since the fall. 

The nonprofit is hoping for increased donations as it adjusts to the influx in demand.

Lauren O’Reilly didn’t know about the increased need for milk when she looked into donating last year. She looked up how she could donate once she realized she was producing more than what her own newborn son needed.

“I think it's for those people who really just happen to have an oversupply. Sometimes we don't know why these things happen," she said. "I can't predict it. But if you do, and you'd like to give back, it's a really simple process." 

breast milk
O’Reilly shows some of the milk she's stored to send with her son to daycare and to donate to The Milk Bank. 

She’s donated over 100 fluid ounces so far. A three-month-old baby can consume two to three fluid ounces of milk per pound of body weight every day.

O’Reilly pumps the milk and lays it flat to freeze before taking it to All Options Pregnancy Resource Center in Bloomington. From there, it goes to The Milk Bank in Indianapolis. 

Reasons for the recent demand are not completely understood but The Milk Bank director Freedom Kolb says supply chain issues with baby formula have increased hospital need.

"We know some of our NICU partners have indicated if that is the case, that they will turn to safe human milk from an accredited milk bank to offset that supply shortage as well," Kolb said.

Kolb said her organization first noticed the spike last fall and started planning ahead, trying to recruit more donors. 

Demand for milk from the The Milk Bank increased by 40 percent in 2021, according to Kolb. Donations haven’t kept pace–increasing only by 30 percent. 

Donations can be dropped off at locations across the state. They then get sent on to The Milk Bank in Indianapolis, which is the only such bank in the state.

The Milk Bank distributes the donations to neonatal intensive care units and households with infants in need.

So far, Kolb says the bank hasn’t had to turn anyone down. But staff are sweeping donation drop-off locations more often and have had to alter hours of packaging and processing to keep up with demand. 

"What has happened is the shift in the the store of inventory–and how long the process is between when we receive milk and when we dispense milk–is shortened," Kolb said. "Really, we are processing and using milk the second it comes in the door."

Breast milk is vital to infant development and helps protect against illnesses like ear infections, pneumonia, and sepsis, according to Dr. Ekanem Akinola, a neonatologist at the Peyton Manning Children's Hospital. It also helps prevent obesity and some childhood cancers.

Akinola said part of the increased demand can be attributed to the raised awareness of milk’s benefits.

"And that increase has occurred not just within the Indianapolis Milk Bank. Even a lot of the other milk banks across the country and Canada experienced an increased demand for breast milk," Akinola siad. "I think people realize more and more the benefits of human milk in the care of infants. More NICUs are providing breast milk and using it for their newborns." 

Akinola said the smaller an infant is, the more important it will be that they have ready access to human milk. Their hospital hasn’t had to make adaptations yet for the shortage. 

Kolb said that if supply is not able to keep up demand, milk would go first to the infants most in need–like those with necrotizing enterocolitis, which mainly affects babies born premature. 

milk bank 2
Donated milk for infants being packaged at The Milk Bank. 

Akinola and Kolb hope that increased education will encourage people who are able to donate.

And O’Reilly says she’s glad it’s something she’s been in a position to do. She hopes it will help instill altruistic values in her son later in life. 

"Hopefully, it's sort of teaching him about how to donate time, or whatever you have, and instilling those sort of values in him," she says. "If it's him having extra food or extra toys, how could we give back to people who don't have those things? And so maybe we'll share this story with him about how I was able to give breast milk."

The Human Milk Banking Association of North America reported distributing 9.2 million fluid ounces of breast milk in 2021–a 20-percent increase from 2020.

Those interested in donating can visit https://www.themilkbank.org/donate-milk to learn more, or call 317-536-1670.

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