Donor milk provides a critical resource to hospitals charged with keeping preterm and other vulnerable infants alive. Maintaining sufficient nutrition for a baby with an underdeveloped or compromised digestive system can be a delicate endeavor, and human milk has proven to be the safest and least disruptive source of nourishment.

Premies, who often can’t coordinate suckling and breathing, may be weeks or even months away from breastfeeding. One in seven babies in Oklahoma is born premature, one of the highest rates in the country.

But it’s not only preterm babies who need donor milk.

“Any NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) baby is a candidate for human milk,” said Rebecca Mannel, secretary of the Oklahoma Mother’s Milk Bank (OMMB) and leader of the Oklahoma Hospital Breastfeeding Education project.

Mothers of high-risk infants may face obstacles providing their own milk. A preterm birth can inhibit the establishment of supply, as can stress, which most mothers with a newborn in the NICU experience. Being separated from her infant — and pumping rather than suckling — also hampers a mother’s supply.

In 2011, more than 2 million ounces of donor milk were distributed nationwide, up 76 percent from 2001.

A milk depot since 2007, OU Medical Center ordered from and collected milk for a bank in Fort Worth,
Texas, which until now was the nearest milk bank with screening and
processing capabilities. Last year, Oklahoma mothers donated 20,000
ounces of milk, despite what Mannel describes as minimal promotion by
advocates. In the first three years of the north Texas bank’s operation,
10 percent of the milk it distributed came from the Sooner State.

“Oklahomans are incredibly generous people,” said Mannel, “and this is just one more way in which we see that. We send a lot of milk south of the Red River.”

Not scheduled to open until January, OMMB already is poised to lead in milk banking: Its partnership with OBI is the first of its kind. Because both organizations share similar missions and require many of the same processes, teaming up made perfect sense.

The partnership has sparked interest in other states that want to establish milk banks. After presenting OMMB’s progress at the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee’s national conference last summer, Mannel has been contacted by those in several other states wanting to follow Oklahoma’s example.

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