Got breast milk? Donor milk bank in Denver accepts donations |

Got breast milk? Donor milk bank in Denver accepts donations

Kari Harden For Steamboat Today

The Human Milk Banking Association of North America supports 26 nonprofit donor milk banks across the U.S. and Canada with more in the development stage.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Following a long labor that resulted in a C-section, Scarlet Marx entered the world on Jan. 10 at just over 8 pounds.

"She was hungry," said first-time mom, April Marx. "She was so hungry." 

Doctors at UCHealth Birth Center at Yampa Valley Medical Center found that Scarlet's blood sugar levels had dropped after delivery, telling April the newborn needed supplemental nutrition immediately — before April would be able to produce her own milk.

There were two options: formula and donor human milk.

April decided to go with the donor milk. In just two days, Scarlett's blood sugar levels had normalized. She was still very hungry, April said, so they kept the donor milk coming, which kept Scarlett calm and content. 

Many organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, list donor human milk as the "first choice" if a mother's milk isn't sufficient. The World Health Organization lists "wet-nursing" and milk banks as equal alternatives when mom's milk isn't available. 

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It isn't a new concept, but rather one dating back thousands of years in human history to wet nurses, who were called upon when a mother wasn't able to breastfeed.

The first milk bank was established in Austria in 1909. In 1911, the first U.S. bank opened in Boston, part of the "Floating Hospital for Children." 

However, according to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), "During the first half of the 20th century a number of cultural changes resulted in the replacement of human milk by artificial feeding as the normal method of infant feeding. These cultural changes included medicalization of birth, changing physician and women’s roles, increasing influence of science and increasing advertising of 'formula.'"

Now, details the HMBANA website, "Over the last 100 years, the interest in human milk has come almost full circle with the understanding that although artificial feeding products are continually improving, human milk provides factors not replicated in any other source of nutrition. In addition, provision of a safe source of donor milk supports breastfeeding by clearly indicating that human milk cannot be replaced. In the twenty-first century, donor milk banking is once again blossoming."

Today, the HMBANA supports 26 nonprofit donor milk banks across the U.S. and Canada with more in the development stage. 

Scarlett's milk came from Mother's Milk Bank in Denver, where donor milk is collected through a stringent screening process from 70 donation and outreach centers in multiple states. 

When requested, and if in enough supply, it is shipped frozen overnight. Banks are much more numerous on the East Coast and in the Midwest than in the western half of the U.S., increasing the importance and reach of the Denver bank, which was established in 1984.

As the demand for human donor milk is increasing, banks are not always able to meet demand with adequate supply.

At least two or three times a year, Yampa Valley Medical Center experiences a back order of milk, said registered lactation consultant Pauline Kopsa.

The Denver milk bank prioritizes its supply for the most at-risk babies, and the center in Steamboat is typically not a high-priority destination. 

There are a number of circumstances in which a mother is unable to provide enough milk on their own, Kopsa said, or when babies like Scarlet have greater needs before their mom begins producing.

While they were able to get the donor milk right away for Scarlet, they experienced a backorder shortly after, Kopsa said. Since then, they have received another delivery.

The UCHealth Birth Center in Steamboat was established as a donation site in 2014. Since then, they've only had two or three women volunteer to donate, said Kopsa. Numbers they'd like to increase.

Because they want to always be able to receive donated milk from Denver when requested, Kopsa said, the continued recruitment donors is "a way of giving back to the whole process."

In order to donate, mothers are required to be healthy, non-smokers and not be on any medications. Ideal candidates are moms with an "abundant supply or who are no longer breastfeeding their own babies," Kopsa said.

Potential donors also undergo tests for a number of diseases. Once collected, the donor milk is gently heated to eliminate bacteria or other organism, while maintaining the high levels of nutrients. 

People are becoming more aware of the science behind breast milk, Kopsa noted. In addition to essential growth hormones, breast milk has antibodies that cannot be re-created in formula, which can play an important role in protecting babies from infection.

"It's mainly about the antibodies," Kopsa said.

But both April and Kopsa are quick to not disparage the use of formula — noting that every mother, baby and situation is unique.

"There is a need for formula," Kopsa emphasized." 

For April, she knew she would eventually be breastfeeding, so the donor milk was a "way to bridge the gap and keep Scarlet healthy and keep her eating."

In addition to the HMBANA network, there are a growing number "informal" networks of milk-sharing, including circles of family and friends and internet-based sources aimed at connecting mothers in need to prospective donors and their milk. There is debate, however, around the informal methods of milk sharing and potential risks, dependent on the varying levels of testing and screening.

Within the standardized HMBANA, there has never been a reported negative outcome from the use of donor milk, Kopsa said.

Just a few days after Scarlet celebrated her one-month birthday, April is successfully breastfeeding, and Scarlet is happy and healthy. While April's not there yet, at some point, she said,"Hopefully, I'll have extra milk and be able to donate."

For moms interested in donating, the Mother's Milk Bank can be reached at 303-869-1888 or at

To determine eligibility, there will be an initial screening over the phone. Then potential donors will receive a packet in the mail to begin further screenings, blood tests and physician approval. All costs of donating are covered by the milk bank.

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