It's lifesaving to some of these babies. It's so valuable. —Wendy Barber

SALT LAKE CITY — Health workers call donated mother's milk "liquid gold" because it can save the life of a sick or premature baby. Unfortunately, the supply of this lifesaving milk is extremely low. 

The local Mothers' Milk Bank Depot is experiencing a critical shortage of donated milk and is asking local lactating women to consider becoming donors.

Human milk donated to the depot at University of Utah's Redwood Health Center helps nourish fragile infants in hospitals throughout Utah and other states. Donors' milk is sent to a processing facility in Denver, where it is pasteurized and distributed to hospital neonatal intensive care units throughout the country, including Utah.

The Utah depot normally sends out about 500 ounces of human milk per week, but it has experienced a significant drop in donations this summer, said Christy Porucznik, co-director of the depot and an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventative Medicine of the U.'s School of Medicine.

Providing human milk to infants in neonatal intensive care units often means shorter hospital stays compared to infants who receive artificial milk, Porucznik said.

"When we give them what their bodies expect, they do better," she said. One reason is the composition of a mother's milk changes to match the developmental needs of the infant.

Mother's milk or human milk has antibodies and nutrients that can't be supplemented, said Wendy Barber, who manages the anonymous breast milk donations at the U. Redwood Health Center. 

"It's lifesaving to some of these babies," she said. "It's so valuable." 

Some women, because of injury or severe illness, are unable to provide their own milk to their preterm or otherwise fragile infants. That's why donations are so important.

Cacia Rodgers has nursed three other kids, and is now nursing her premature 1-month-old twin boys Jack and Samuel. She knows how crucial breast milk is for their health and development.

"I think it's a huge benefit to them, hands down," she said. 

"Donor milk is not meant to be a solution. It's meant to be a bridge until we can support mom to get her own milk available for her own baby," Porucznik said.

Right now, the depot has moms who contribute from all over the state, so some of the donors can't make donations daily or weekly, Barber said. They'll maybe come in once a month.

Clairissa Granquist was looking into becoming a breast milk donor after her baby girl was born eight weeks ago, but now that she has to go back to work, she's found herself needing extra milk instead.

"That wasn't the plan, but we have more debt than we thought we had," she said. Granquist, who lives in an apartment in Farmington, has always wanted to breastfeed her children.

She also wanted a natural birth and uses cloth diapers, choices that help with the young family's finances, but also give Granquist purpose.

"I'm one of those natural, kooky moms and I just think if you have the capability to breastfeed, then that is what you should do," she said. Her daughter eats everything she produces on her own and with the plan to be away about four days a week, Granquist's own milk supply just won't cut it.

"I just want to give her the biggest fighting chance," Granquist said. "I want to give her everything that I can."

There are a few reasons why the mothers donate to the milk bank. Barber says for some mothers, they may have lost a baby and they feel better knowing they are helping another baby. For other moms, it just may be that they have an abundance of milk, and instead of wasting it, they donate it. 

That's what Rodgers plans to do. "If I'm done and I have extra milk, I would donate it," she said.

Mothers who are interested in donating should call 877-458-5503 to begin the screening process. 

General requirements for donors include women who are nonsmokers; limit their use of caffeine or alcohol; are willing to donate at least 150 ounces during the time they are donors; receive medical releases from their health care provider; have no routine use of most medications and test negative for viruses in a blood test.

For more information, visit the Salt Lake Mothers’ Milk Donation Center at: healthcare.utah.edu/primarycare/redwood/breastmilk/index.php

Porucznik said the donation of breast milk is "something that mothers are in a unique position to do." Mothers can collect donations in their own home and on their own schedules, offering a service "that can really, honestly save lives." 

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Because of the shortage, hospitals are rationing their supplies. Porucznik said the program generally relies on about 50 volunteers who rotate in and out of the program. Under normal circumstances, supplies are tight. This summer, they have become critically low, Porucznik said.

While she can only speculate why donations have dropped, Porucznik said nursing mothers who go on vacation likely do not pump breast milk because they do not have a means to freeze it. Some women get out of the habit during summer months. If someone else in the household is ill, a donor mother's milk cannot be collected for donation.

Most participating mothers drop off donations weekly. "It's a big commitment. We really appreciate the time and effort they put into it," Porucznik said. 

 Contributing: Wendy Leonard