Healthy Start

NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank provides families with donated breast milk so that premature babies can thrive

During a routine ultrasound appointment, Jennifer Larison and her husband watched with amazement as one of their twin girls put her hand in the other’s mouth. It turned out that the twins shared an amniotic sac and placenta, which meant they could touch one another throughout the pregnancy.

It was a beautiful thing to witness, but “mono-mono” (Monoamniotic-Monochorionic) twins are at risk of dangerous medical complications such as cord compression, which can deprive babies of oxygen. To avert this, Larison’s doctor scheduled an early C-section and on November 3, the babies were delivered at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton at about 33 weeks. Twins are considered full-term at 37 weeks.

Weighing just four pounds at birth, the twins were frail and needed medical care at the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). They also needed the nutrition and antibodies from breast milk to grow stronger, but Larison’s body couldn’t yet produce enough milk to feed both babies.

“When you have two, it’s really difficult to have enough to feed them both, especially when it doesn’t come in right away,” she says. Fortunately, Larison could rely on donor milk from NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank to nourish the babies in their first eight days of life. While formula is always an option for premature infants, human milk often helps babies gain weight sooner and avoid the digestive issues and infections common to preemies. “You can’t replicate breast milk like you can with other things,” she says.

Since April 2012, NorthernStar has been helping mothers like Larison nourish their frail infants. “We were the first milk bank to open in the last 40 years,” says founder and nurse, Jannette Festival. In the early 1980s, Canada had 22 milk banks across the country, but most were shut down after the AIDS crisis. “There was no test to detect for the HIV/AIDS virus in the breast milk so all of the milk banks closed,” she says. After tests were developed to ensure safety, some milk banks eventually re-opened, but NorthernStar is the first new bank to open in Canada in over four decades.

NorthernStar supplies pasteurized donor milk to hospitals in Alberta, but about nine per cent goes out of province depending on the supply and need. At the Calgary facility, donated milk is pasteurized and tested for harmful bacteria ensuring premature infants with weakened immune systems are protected from any additional bacterial challenges. Much like a blood bank, NorthernStar ensures all donated milk can be tracked back to the donor in the unlikely event of a recall. “If next week a new disease was identified, and we suspected a donor had it, we could immediately find out where her milk went to,” says Festival.

NorthernStar originally opened as the Calgary Mothers’ Milk Bank – a reference to its location, rather than its clientele. Unfortunately, many assumed the bank only served families in Calgary and many women in Edmonton were unaware that they could donate their milk. As a result, in 2014 only 20 per cent of milk donations came from Edmonton, even though the hospitals use at least half of all pasteurized milk dispensed by the milk bank.

To remove the limitations created by the original name, the bank recently changed its name to NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank. “We wanted moms to know it doesn’t matter where they live, they can donate to helping sick and fragile babies,” says Festival. The organization approached Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) for help with its rebranding efforts, including an awareness campaign in Edmonton launched early this year. Via advertisements on buses, billboards and elsewhere, the non-profit hopes to educate Edmontonians about the work of the milk bank and its ongoing need for donations.

Festival explains that like blood banks, milk banks rely on the altruism of donors. “These women move mountains for us,” she says. “We don’t recruit them – they come to us and are quite committed to help sick babies whose mothers may not be able to produce milk. They see the health of their own baby and want to share that health with babies who need it.” Many donors will pump day and night to ensure they have enough milk to donate.

Last year, the bank signed up approximately 650 donors (up from 425 the year before) with babies under one year of age. Most of the time, donors are breastfeeding women who’ve recently birthed healthy babies. Some donors have lost babies at birth or soon afterwards. Festival explains that many bereaved moms find solace in donating their breast milk to sick infants. There are proven health effects for bereaved moms and it offers them a chance to leave a legacy for their baby.

The benefits of breast milk are many. “To the babies that receive pasteurized donor human milk, it’s not just a meal; it’s medicine,” says Festival. On top of containing easy-to-digest proteins and carbohydrates, breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fend off illnesses and infections. This passive immunity is important for all babies, but especially premature infants at risk of developing life-threatening infections in hospital.

“Because I used the service, I just felt like it was such a benefit and I wanted somebody else to have that same benefit.”

One particularly dangerous bacteria, necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), can destroy portions of a baby’s intestinal tract and create lifelong problems. Formula is a risk factor for preterm babies, which is why using donor milk helps NICUs dramatically reduce the incidence of this bacterial infection among patients. One of the hospitals that NorthernStar serves has reduced its cases of NEC from eight a year to just one or two, says Festival.

Larison is grateful that her babies made it through the NICU without developing any infections or health issues. After five long weeks, she was finally able to take two healthy babies home and now they’re thriving. In fact, her milk supply is so healthy now that she produces more than her twins need, and so she’s decided to donate it to NorthernStar.

The screening procedure was straightforward, says Larison. First, she visited her physician for a clean bill of health for herself and the babies. After that, she had blood tests done to verify that she didn’t have HIV/AIDS, hepatitis or any other illnesses. Now she pumps and freezes milk at home and recently dropped off her first donation at the Grey Nuns Hospital (which couriers donor milk to Calgary for processing).

“Because I used the service, I just felt like it was such a benefit and I wanted somebody else to have that same benefit,” says Larison, who plans to continue donating for the first year of her babies’ lives. She hopes that more breastfeeding women will consider donating, too: “Formula’s just not as good [for babies] as a woman-made product.”