New source of donated breastmilk in Hawaii offers important lifeline to babies

“A mother’s feeding choice is a very personal and complex one."
Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 4:33 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 16, 2022 at 6:52 PM HST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The recent baby formula crisis sparked more interest in breastfeeding.

Most experts advise exclusively breastfeeding a baby for the first 6 months, but many mothers struggle to meet that goal. And now, donated breastmilk is filling the gap for some.

Personal trainer and new mom Melissa Rivera had her mind set on breastfeeding, but didn’t realize how hard it can be. “You don’t really hear about the struggles of it, you just kind of hear about the good,” she said.

Good things like promoting her 1-month-old son Hank’s brain development, lowering infections and allergies, and boosting antibodies.

“Formula just doesn’t do that as well. And the nutrients in breast milk are just more bioavailable or better absorbed,” said Mariko Fong, lactation consultant with Kaiser Permanente Hawaii.

“The bonding aspect too is pretty important, too,” said Rivera, who explained that her delivery was difficult and her milk didn’t come in right away.

Until Rivera catches up, Hank drinks pasteurized donor breastmilk instead of formula.

Kaiser sources it from a certified milk bank in California, whose donors undergo blood testing and medical screening to ensure the supply is safe ― similar to a blood bank.

It took a load off of Rivera’s chest.

“It is kind of a lot of pressure in the beginning to produce milk and you think like, ‘Right away, he’s gonna latch on, it’s gonna be easy, and we’re gonna do this,’ but it doesn’t always happen that way. So and then when it doesn’t, it becomes a little bit stressful, which in turn makes it harder to produce milk,” Rivera said.

Donor breastmilk is typically reserved for vulnerable babies in neonatal intensive care units.

But Kaiser’s program makes it available to new mom patients.

“It just didn’t make sense that formula was the only option for our mothers in the hospital. And we thought we can do better than this,” Fong said.

Advocates say more mothers are exclusively breastfeeding, hoping to stay immune to inflation and supply chain problems.

“A mother’s feeding choice is a very personal and complex one,” Fong said.

“And many women choose different feeding options for different reasons like their comfort level, their lifestyle, past experiences, or even medical situations.”

Moms without milk face another challenge: Hawaii does not have a local milk bank that collects, tests and pasteurizes donated breastmilk. In desperation, some turn to online platforms to find local breastmilk.

“Our ancestors breastfed each other’s children, right? So we don’t shame anybody for doing that. And we just want, right, our babies to be fed and nourished,” said Amber Granite, board president of nonprofit Breastfeeding Hawaii, which has been working to start a local milk bank.

“We’re really trying to build a stronger, indigenous, especially a stronger indigenous lactation workforce. You know, we have indigenous breastfeeding counselors that are on all the different islands,” Granite added.

Still, health experts advise against using breastmilk from unknown sources.

Kaiser Permanente discourages buying and sharing breastmilk online, saying it can be dangerous.

“It’s really your choice of what feels safe for you. We would of course prefer you to check in with your pediatrician first before you make that decision,” Granite said.

August is National Breastfeeding Month ― a perfect time, advocates say, to shed more light on the issue.

“We can do a lot more to support moms. But we just need more people on board to help us build that capacity to do it,” Granite added.

Copyright 2022 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.