Women who donated breast milk offered a literal life-line for my family. Here’s what happened to us and why the program for milk donation matters.
My family’s journey
My wife and unborn son easily could have died. My family went out of town late in my wife’s pregnancy, and we took easy hikes in mountains relatively remote from hospitals and cell towers. What we did not know at the time was that my wife soon would be diagnosed with severe preeclampsia, which causes high blood pressure and can lead to organ failure. Thankfully by the time she went into crisis we had returned home.
The night of our son’s birth, we thought we were just going in for a class at a local midwifery center (which, unfortunately, subsequently closed). My wife was totally committed to natural child birth—or at least as committed as a person can be. She liked the idea of using gravity and water and such to help with birth. We had five weeks to go for the pregnancy, or so we thought.
But someone at the clinic took my wife’s blood pressure, and it was high. Then a urine test showed protein, a sign of possible kidney problems. The midwifery had an arrangement with Swedish Hospital, so we walked down the street to talk with a doctor there. The hospital quickly admitted my wife. I took a while to mentally and emotionally catch up with what was going on; this was not the night I’d expected! Indeed, we had concert tickets for Rush’s final tour the next night.
Initially we thought we’d be able to return home with drugs for the preeclampsia. But the symptoms did not improve. Doctors then thought inducing birth would work. But, with my wife’s blood pressure elevated to 220 over 125, doctors told us they needed to perform a C-section. Immediately.
That’s about as far from a “natural” birth as you can get, but the lives of my wife and our child were at stake. I appreciate that the hospital’s staff gave us time to absorb this information and to talk with outside experts. This was a lot to take in. (By the way, my advice to couples during pregnancy is to get a home blood pressure monitor and use it frequently.)
The C-section, which I watched, was a lot more—let’s say intense than I imagined it would be. Finally doctors got everything out that was supposed to come out, put everything back in that was supposed to stay in, and sewed and stapled everything back up.
My wife remained quite sick for several days. Doctors said it was the worst case of preeclampsia they’d seen. Twice staff had to put her on a magnesium drip, which controls symptoms.
After my crash course in preeclampsia and C-sections came my lesson in breast feeding. As you can imagine, my wife was in no condition to provide milk right away. That’s just not something you can turn on or off on demand, it turns out. Without those extra weeks of pregnancy or the more-usual birthing process, my wife’s body was not primed to provide milk. So what were we going to do?
That’s when NICU nurses told us about donated breast milk. We felt hugely relieved that we could rely on a steady supply of high-quality food for our baby. Sure, formula is great as a secondary option, but we wanted to stick with human milk if we could. Swedish already had their connections with the donor system and had a supply of milk in stock. So that was one thing that we just didn’t have to worry about.
We have no idea who the women were who donated the milk that fed our newborn son. But they, along with the excellent delivery and NICU doctors and nurses of Swedish, are my family’s heroes. During a time when so much went wrong and we had so much to worry about, getting excellent nutrition for our son was easy.
A politically generated problem
Why am I telling this story now? Disturbingly, families have faced a shortage of infant formula in recent weeks and so are having trouble feeding their babies. Colorado writer and rancher Kelly Maher documented the formula shortage at various stores.
As Scott Lincicome explains, the supply problems of the pandemic, along with a recall of Abbott Nutritional formula, prompted the crisis. But the problems go much deeper. Citing Gabriella Beaumont‐Smith, Lincicome writes, “The United States maintains high tariff barriers to imports of formula from other nations. . . . Imports of formula from most places, such as the European Union, are subject to a complex system of ‘tariff rate quotas.'”
Moreover, Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out, “The FDA won’t allow European formulas to be sold here because of inane labeling concerns. . . . The EU arguably has stricter nutritional standards for formula than the US does. It requires baby formula to be made with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (which we don’t). It bans some forms of added sugars. European baby formula is also more likely to be organic, derived from grass-fed cows, and made with milk fat (as opposed to plant-based fats). There are also more goat-milk based and ‘gentle’ options sold there than there are here. So, the FDA is preventing perfectly good—perhaps better than American—baby formula from coming here because of things like labels not explicitly stating that it contains less than 1 milligram of iron per 100 calories or not listing all ingredients (which can be found elsewhere).”
Joe Biden decided he’d better pretend to do something useful. CNBC reported the “the president has . . . directed the Health and Human Services Department and Department of Agriculture to use aircraft from the Defense Department to pick up infant formula from overseas that meets U.S. health and safety standards.” Economist Alex Tabarrok commented, “Or you could, you know, stop confiscating the shipments that are already being flown in.”
Meanwhile, Congress passed a bill to increase subsidies for formula and to provide more funding to the FDA—the same federal agency partially responsible for the crisis.
As is often the case, government could “help” people best simply by staying out of the way. This is a clear case of the government breaking your legs and then offering you “free” crutches.
The importance of donated milk
The breast milk donation program remains in place. Governor Polis recently posted to social media, “Some parents are facing the unthinkable reality of not being able to feed their children through no fault of their own, so Colorado is partnering on an option to address the formula supply issue. It is critical that we use every option out there to make sure our infants do not go hungry. Information on how to donate or purchase milk, or make a donation can be found at https://rmchildren.org/mothers-milk-bank/ or milkbank.org.”
However, Mother’s Milk Bank is not set up as a wide-scale program outside of hospitals. CPR reports, “The vast majority of its supplies go to neonatal ICUs, but it also serves around 30 to 40 outpatient families a week, according to [the group’s communication’s director Jodye] Whitesell. Colorado’s Department of Human Services is partnering with the bank to encourage donations of both milk and money to help cover the processing fee for lower-income families.”
Families who wish to buy milk are restricted to 40 ounces unless they get a prescription. Even then, “all orders are subject to availability, NICUs and hospitals get first priority,” the organization’s web page says.
And the cost is prohibitive, at $18 for a four-ounce bottle, 9News reports. Perhaps the state program will both encourage more donations and help subsidize women who need the milk. Still, families would have been a lot better off if the federal government had not screwed up the formula market in the first place.
It would be interesting to do more research into the market for breast milk. What are the relevant regulations, and do they needlessly restrict this option? Obviously, as the FDA points out, getting milk without adequate quality controls could be dangerous. But is the market as robust as it could be?
There are some inherent limits. I asked Whitesell why there is a rule restricting donations to mothers with children younger than 18 months. She said, “As a baby grows, the nutritional profile of their mother’s milk adapts to meet their current needs. Since the majority of our milk goes to support premature babies, it is important that the nutritional profile of the milk meets the needs of newborn infants.”
Whitesell pointed out that her organization accepts financial contributions to help families afford milk, as well as milk donations from qualified people. (My wife tried to donate but couldn’t because of a medication she was taking.)
I appreciate Polis’s enthusiasm for out-of-the-box approaches, but it does not appear to me that donated breast milk offers a real solution to most families trying to feed their babies. Thankfully, the donation program is robust enough to serve hospitals, and that in itself is hugely important. During an important time, milk donors sustained my child’s life.
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