Tacoma hospital home to breast milk depot that helps babies in need

The only human breast milk depot in Pierce County isn’t a complicated operation: It’s one plain white freezer.

“That’s it,” said Sarah Newport, a lactation consultant at Tacoma General Hospital who was the driving force behind setting up a place for mothers to donate excess breast milk for the benefit of needy babies nationwide. “From our side of things, it’s very simple.”

From the babies’ side of things, it’s essential. Human breast milk is the perfect food for human babies, and sometimes they don’t have easy access to it. Mothers may have health complications that prevent either the production or use of their milk. And premature or fragile new babies may not tolerate formula, which is based on cow’s milk.

Tacoma General has been using donated breast milk in its neonatal intensive care unit since 2010, but it was just this fall that it officially opened a depot for local mothers to contribute to the Mothers’ Milk Bank, a nonprofit program of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Health Foundation in Denver.

The bank takes donated breast milk from depots in 11 states. It screens and pasteurizes the milk for a consistent quality, then sells it to hospitals for $4 an ounce plus shipping. The bank says the price covers the cost of the work. Tacoma General is the only hospital in the MultiCare system that purchases donated milk, and it spends an average of $2,554 a month.

Using donated breast milk worried new mother Yasmein Rogers at first. Rogers delivered her twin girls Irelynn and Brazil at 33 weeks and three days. Brazil weighed just over 3 pounds, and Irelynn almost 5 pounds. Rogers wanted to nurse them, and they needed extra milk.

“At first I wasn’t for it. Feeding them someone else’s milk?” she said in early October, shaking her head at the thought. “But then the nurses explained it to me. The process makes me feel a lot better.”

The depot at Tacoma General helps increase the supply for babies nationwide. Before the local depot opened, mothers could donate to the milk bank on their own, but they had to handle the process themselves. Their only costs might have been blood tests, which MultiCare Health System does for free. The milk bank pays for the shipping.

Since MultiCare started shipping donated breast milk to the milk bank this past spring, it has sent nine packages from 14 donors, Newport said. Setting up the freezer cost $3,000 and was paid for with a donor-funded grant.

“That’s really all we needed: a locked secure freezer only used for donated milk that is monitored for temperature control,” Newport said. “And we needed people to know about it.”

Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia also operates a breast milk bank, which started earlier this year.