Shortage of breast milk leads lactating mothers to respond to call for donations

Yee White made an example of herself Friday. By donating five large, blue picnic-sized coolers full of her breast milk – about 500 ounces – White hopes to be an inspiration to the Southeast Asian community of south Sacramento, where she lives.

The 34-year-old was among the most prolific donors to respond to a call to lactating mothers by Sutter Memorial Hospital, known by locals as “Sacramento’s baby hospital.” Administrators say a shortage of donated milk is putting at risk the most vulnerable prematurely born babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. White’s contribution alone amounts to 500 feedings for these preemies, who typically take in an ounce at a time.

“She is an especially good role model for women from Southeast Asia, who have low breast-feeding rates here,” said Jeannette Newman-Velez, a breast-feeding promotion coordinator for Community Resource Projects. “When they come to the U.S., they drop breast-feeding because they think American women are formula-feeders.” Like so many immigrants, Southeast Asians leave behind healthy homeland habits in order to adopt what they observe in American culture.

Friday’s day-long, first-ever breast milk drive was held at Sutter Medical Plaza to benefit Sacramento preemies via the Mothers’ Milk Bank of California, which is based in San Jose but serves Sutter Health system, the entire state of California and 12 other states. Locally, efforts are under way to spark a conversation about establishing a breast milk bank in Sacramento, said Assemblyman Richard Pan, a pediatrician who represents south Sacramento and is a supporter of the drive.

Sacramento Vice Mayor Angelique Ashby stopped by with her daughter, 7-month-old Alia, to support the drive. “I don’t think a lot of people know you can make such a difference to another mother’s child to donate your excess breast milk,” Ashby said. “It’s a matter of letting people know.”

She supported the creation of a breast-feeding room in City Hall, “a nice, safe, clean place for working mothers.”

The benefits of breast milk are now widely known, far more so than 10 years ago when the Legislature adopted a bill to make it legal to nurse in public. Research shows that breast milk has over 200 healthy components to it that are crucial, for instance, to helping babies’ guts develop fully. For premature infants as young as 24 weeks old, human milk is the only nutrition that’s a safe option. Without it, IQ may suffer, bone growth may slow and chronic disease may set in, researchers say. And a lack of human milk and its strong growth hormones may lead prematurely born infants to develop “short gut syndrome” with the risk of lifelong digestive problems, Sutter neonatologists said.

Kate Risingsun is a regional lactation and parent education manager at Sutter Memorial. She said, “Babies do grow on formula, but it doesn’t have all the components in human milk. There are some babies that don’t do well with foreign milk protein.”

White, who works at Sacramento County’s Women, Infants and Children program, has two other children besides the 14-month-old baby boy, Malachi, whom she is now nursing. Her goal is to be able to continue producing extra milk for two years. For months now, since October, she’s had an abundance of milk to share due in part to a hearty diet based on fruits, vegetables, grains and protein like chicken.

White’s contribution was impressive, but she was outdone when Sarah Bennie, 31, of Natomas, walked into the room with approximately 800 ounces of human milk.

“I knew that the milk drive was coming and I wanted to donate to other mother’s babies,” Bennie said. “I have a really good supply and that’s how I pump breast milk at least seven times a day. If I stop pumping, my body will think the need’s not there and it will naturally cut back. Giving breast milk is time consuming but it is really important for the community.”