Breast Milk Banks Are Struggling To Meet Demand

6:23 minutes

a storeroom with wheelable shelves stacked with jars filled with breast milk
Donated breast milk from The Milk Bank in Indianapolis in February 2022. Credit: Darian Benson/WFYI

state of science iconThis article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Darian Benson of Side Effects Public Media, was originally published on WFYI Indianapolis.

The nationwide shortage of baby formula is also impacting Hoosier families.

More than 40 percent of retailers across the country reported being out of formula stock during the first week of May, according to Datasembly, a firm that collects data from grocery stores and other retailers.

The Milk Bank is an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that provides donated breast milk to babies in the neonatal intensive care unit and babies with medical needs who benefit from human milk. Advancement Director Jenna Streit said the organization is seeing an increase in requests from families desperate to feed their babies.

“We’re hearing from across the region, across the country, that families are searching, spending a lot of time driving around and trying to find formula options that just aren’t in stock,” Streit said. “They’re left without a lot of options.”

Streit said The Milk Bank can be one part of the solution, but the nonprofit has to be careful about how much milk it dispenses. The Milk Bank prioritizes donations to NICU babies.

“The Milk Bank does not have an unlimited supply of milk and we have a really small donor population as well,” Streit said. “There needs to be milk banks, there needs to be safe human milk and there needs to be formula available.”

The Milk Bank is trying to increase donors to meet demand. Streit said if donating milk is not an option, The Milk Bank is running a campaign called “Give An Ounce” to reduce the processing fee for donated milk—a barrier for some families.

“We’re asking folks to donate $4.50, which is equal to our processing fee,” Streit said. “That would be a great way for people to get involved.”

Those interested in donating milk or funds should visit TheMilkBank.org.

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Segment Guests

Darian Benson

Darian Benson is a health reporter with Side Effects Public Media from WFYI in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: As we’ve heard, desperate parents are seeking out food for their babies wherever they can find it, and one of those places might be a milk bank, a facility that collects donations of breast milk and distributes that milk to babies who need an extra boost. To learn a bit more, let’s check in on “The State of Science.”




ANNOUNCER 3: St. Louis Public Radio–

ANNOUNCER 4: Iowa Public Radio news.

IRA FLATOW: Local news stories of national significance– there are about 30 accredited milk banks in the US which are experiencing a higher demand due to the current formula shortage. Here to tell us more about this is Darian Benson, a health reporter for Side Effects Public Media based at WFYI in Indianapolis, Indiana. Welcome to Science Friday, Darian.

DARIAN BENSON: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we just learned about the formula shortage and what it means for babies, but desperate parents are also turning to another source, these milk banks. So tell us, first of all, how exactly does a milk bank work?

DARIAN BENSON: Yeah, so a milk bank is a tissue bank, donors who donate milk that they might be producing, they might have an extra supply of milk, or they might have been a surrogate or something. So they’re donating their milk, and that milk is then pasteurized. Much like the milk that we might drink, it’s then pasteurized to make sure there’s no harmful bacteria or anything like that, and then it’s donated to babies in need. The milk is primarily for babies in the NICU or babies who might medically benefit from breast milk. Maybe a mom’s milk hasn’t come in yet, or maybe the baby is adopted and might benefit from breast milk.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking with Darian Benson, a health reporter for Side Effects Public Media from WFYI in Indianapolis, Indiana. So of course, right now, with this formula shortage, people are looking for baby food at all sorts of places, and this might be one place that they’re looking to buy. If you were a parent looking to buy breast milk, is it easy to purchase?

DARIAN BENSON: Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to purchase. You can’t really just walk into a milk bank and purchase milk like you would at a store. Because the milk is primarily for the NICU babies or the sick babies, there’s a very limited supply of milk that people can just purchase. It’s also kind of expensive. At the milk bank in Indianapolis, there’s a processing fee of $4.50 for an ounce of breast milk.

Now there is a sliding scale based on income, and sometimes there’s grants or donations for people to kind of offset that cost. But it is still pretty costly. A breastfed baby needs anywhere between 19 to 30 ounces of milk a day, so if a baby drinks about 4 ounce bottles seven times a day, that’s about $126 a day.

IRA FLATOW: My goodness, so that is quite an expense. Even before this current shortage, though, you reported back in February that milk banks were seeing a bit of a rise in demand. I assume that that rise in demand has just increased within the last couple of weeks.

DARIAN BENSON: Yeah, so I spoke with Jenna Streit, who’s the advancement director of the milk bank in Indianapolis. She said that they’re seeing an increase in requests for donor milk.

JENNA STREIT: We’re hearing from across the region, across the country that families are searching, spending a lot of time driving around and trying to find formula options that just aren’t in stock. We’re now fielding a lot of calls from somewhat desperate families who are searching for a way to feed their baby.

DARIAN BENSON: They want to help. They don’t want any baby to go hungry, and they’re trying their best. But their supply is limited to the amount of donors that they have and the amount of milk that they do have.

IRA FLATOW: And you’ve been talking to a lot of parents. I’m wondering how they’re coping with this shortage and what exactly you’re hearing from people who might be seeking out milk from milk banks now.

DARIAN BENSON: Parents are desperate. They’re trying to find ways to feed their baby. If their baby is formula fed, they can’t find formula. The shelves oftentimes are empty, and it’s a really big problem for babies who might have a dairy allergy or need specialized formula. So parents have joined groups online, on primarily Facebook, of people who are either swapping formula or swapping donated milk. A lot of moms and parents are looking for donors who are willing to donate some milk for their baby.

But for the babies with allergies, some parents are asking, is there a donor who might be dairy free? I spoke to one mom who is pumping extra just so she can increase her supply to donate more milk to babies who might have some allergies. She’s eliminated dairy and a few other common allergies just so she can help these babies who are sick.

IRA FLATOW: Just to be clear, Darian, and when you’re talking about this sort of person-to-person exchange or people finding milk through a Facebook group, this is a very different thing than going through a milk bank. I assume that this comes with some pretty substantial risks.

DARIAN BENSON: Yeah, I think it’s important to say a parent is going to do what’s best for their baby, and at this point, I think a lot of parents are thinking, I need to find some way to feed my baby. My baby cannot go hungry. And formal sharing isn’t new. For centuries, people have had wet nurses or people sharing milk to others.

But the FDA does not recommend informal milk sharing. They do ask, regardless if a parent is going to a milk bank or finding milk through a friend or online, that they speak to a doctor first, but that’s just because there are some risks. Especially with informal sharing, there’s bacteria if somebody not storing the milk properly. Also, certain medications can be passed through breast milk that can be dangerous for a baby.

IRA FLATOW: So is there anything that milk banks can do to help more babies?

DARIAN BENSON: Yeah, so I’ve spoken with people from a few different milk banks, and they are really trying to increase their donor pool right now so that they can provide more milk for babies, specifically for the babies who are being affected by this formula shortage right now. So people can donate milk. They can also do financial contributions to their local milk banks, kind of offset that cost, that processing fee for the milk.

IRA FLATOW: Darian, thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us. I really appreciate it.


IRA FLATOW: Darian Benson is a health reporter for Side Effects Public Media from WFYI in Indianapolis, Indiana. Coming up after our break, we’ll dive into the wonderful world of sharks. Stay with us. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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