Shortly after Brooke Spittal gave birth to daughter Naomi last June, she began expressing in preparation for returning to work full time.
“I found out I’m a very over-producer,” she said. “A month and a half into my breastfeeding/pumping journey, I found out I had too much milk for my daughter.”
The associate nurse in the Department of Endocrinology at the University of Chicago, Spittal, in Hammond, Indiana, recognized the value of human breast milk, especially for helping premature and at-risk babies as well as infants who are being adopted. So, she started freezing and storing her excess milk.
Spittal and her husband own a Deep Freezer as well as a fridge/freezer, but after a while, she says, “I don’t have room for food anymore!”
After seeing a video online of women who were pumping and donating breast milk through a breast milk bank in the Western Great Lakes Region, Spitale began looking for a donation center.
The Milk Bank provides pasteurized human milk to premature and critically ill babies, assists mothers who donate milk after loss, and distributes low-cost or free milk to chronically ill children of middle and low income. Drop off and distribution centers are located throughout Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
For Spitale, the nearest drop-off point was in Indiana, 50 miles away, so she expanded her search to Illinois. That’s when I located the Franciscan Family Health Birthing Center in Olympia Fields.
The ride was only 25 minutes from Spittal’s home. “The lactation specialist was crying and shocked at how much milk I was able to produce,” she said of her first delivery.
Franciscan Health-certified lactation consultant and registered nurse Ann Mitchell confirmed this.
“She’s our number one donor,” Mitchell said. “With one downing, she gave us 35 liters. That filled one freezer.”
Spitale had pumped milk over a period of several weeks. To store them, I used 6-ounce plastic bags provided by the milk bank, with the bags dated and labeled with their assigned donor number. Then she delivered packages of frozen milk into a cooler, packed in layers of ice.
“Keeping milk frozen can be tricky, so you need a lot of ice,” she said.
Mitchell said donors generally stop donating after six months, when their babies start eating solid foods. This causes fluctuations in the number of donors dropping milk into the Franciscan Family Health Center.
“We’ve got four to ten,” Mitchell said.
Most of the donors are patients served by the center. Many of them also happen to be heavy milk producers and even nurses, like Spitale. But some of them lost their babies in the later stages of pregnancy when their bodies were preparing for lactation.
“For those who have lost children, this can help them heal emotionally because they know they are helping other children live,” Mitchell said.
In Chicago’s southern suburbs, Advocate Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn is also accepting donations of milk, according to the Western Great Lakes Mother’s Milk Bank website that lists drop-off locations.
But before any breastfeeding mother can start donating milk, she must go through a rigorous screening process that requires blood samples to be submitted and countless health-related questions answered.
Spitale answered questions about her pregnancy, prescription and over-the-counter medication use, whether she smokes or drinks alcohol, whether she has any autoimmune disorders, and whether she has had any infections that require antibiotics. She also answered questions about her medical history and her daughter’s health.
“They also wanted to know what my job was, if there was any exposure to blood-borne diseases like hepatitis or HIV, or any lancets,” Spitali said.
It turned out to be the case. “I got pricked with a needle at work, and there was a waiting period before I used any milk.”
Thanks to the temporary donor number, I was able to continue to donate milk that was stored for later use. Fortunately for many children, Spitale had it all and the milk was used.
One of the most satisfying aspects of breastfeeding, Spittal said, was knowing that she was giving her daughter the best possible start with immunization and essential nutrition. “But I also love the idea that I was able to help other kids,” she said.
Spitale also contributed knowledge about breast milk.
“Some of the donated milk is used for research,” Mitchell said. “These donations are important in many ways.”
Teaching new mothers about breastfeeding and pumping is part of the prenatal education effort at the birthing center. “It’s the feeding and pumping that stimulate production,” Mitchell said.
After giving birth, breastfeeding moms can email or call Mitchell when questions arise. They also have access to a monthly virtual support group.
For its support of breastfeeding, the Franciscan Health Birthing Center was awarded an international Baby Friendly designation in 2019 after a rigorous review process by Baby Friendly USA.
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Consistent with this classification, Mitchell strives to educate women about the benefits of breastfeeding over the use of formula.
“One mom said she would go with formula,” Mitchell said. “I gave her information about breastfeeding because I couldn’t tell her what to do. But once I realized the benefits, she called me back and insisted, ‘I want to do this.’”
While most of the benefits support children’s health, some are more about comfort and convenience.
“Breastfed babies don’t end up with all the bubbles that come with bottle feeding, so they don’t cry as much,” Mitchell said. “Plus, you don’t have to get up and mix formula in the middle of the night.”
Mitchell said working moms need to be able to express milk every three hours or so, to keep up with their baby’s feeding schedule and to maintain milk production, adding that employers can support women by setting aside special spaces for this purpose, also known as ” infusion of pods”.
“If more people knew about all the benefits of breastfeeding, more women would,” Mitchell said. “One of the reasons mothers don’t want to breastfeed is because they don’t know there is help. But we tell them, ‘You can do it, it’s easy.'”
Susan DeGran is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown newspaper.