(CBS News) In addition to providing nutrients and antibodies to protect a young infant, breast milk has the correct amount of nutrients to help a baby grow, is easier to digest and helps protect the child from diseases, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office on Women's Health.
The World Health Organization recommends that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and should have complementary breast feeding until the age of two or older. However, for some mothers who have premature babies, more than one child or other health issues, being able to breastfeed just isn't possible.
That's where breast milk banks like Mother's Milk Bank in San Jose, which is part of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), step in. The facility takes in donated breast milk from other mothers, freezes it and sends it out to hospitals who use it for their preterm infants and other children whose mothers suffer from delayed lactation, USA Today reported.
"We're just struggling to keep up," executive director Pauline Sakamoto said to USA Today. "Our freezers are empty, but the demand is skyrocketing. It's just exponentially growing, so it's imperative for us to find more milk."
Sakamoto said that an increased demand by doctors for breast milk, which is only available by prescription, is creating a shortage. From 2010 to 2011, HMBANA reported that they had a 17 percent increase of milk dispensed.
One of the reasons breast milk is such a valued resource is because it can help prevent certain medical conditions, including a bowel condition called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which typically affects infants who have a very low birth weight or were born prematurely, the Toronto Star said. After using breast milk in the neonatal intensive care units for two years at two Canadian hospitals, the rate of NEC dropped from 7 percent to 1 percent.
This means potentially that breast milk can help save money for hospitals as well. While it costs about $200 to give an infant a four-week supply of donor breast milk, babies who are given the natural milk are discharged on two days earlier on average, Canadian health minister Deb Matthews told the Toronto Star. It costs about $500 a day for a baby to be kept in a neonatal intensive care unit.
Mothers who want to share their breast milk typically have to pass a telephone interview, answer detailed questions about their health history, provide a blood specimen for testing and have their OB-GYN and baby's pediatrician agree that it is safe for them to donate, director of the Mothers' Milk Bank of Ohio at Grant Medical Center in Columbus Fran Feehan told the Toledo Blade.
Most mothers who donate are just people who have extra milk, but about 8 percent of their donors are parents who lost a child and want to help as part of the healing process. The donors do not receive any compensation.
Currently, there are 11 breast milk banks in the U.S. and two in Canada, according to the Toronto Star. There used to be 23 in Canada, but HIV fears caused many of the facilities to shut down in the 1980s.
While most milk banks are non-profits, they do charge around $3 to $5 per ounce to cover the cost of screening donated milk for bacteria, milk pasteurization, blood testing of donor moms, Sakamoto told USA Today.
That's why some mothers are opting to share breast milk through social media. One of the organizations, Human Milk 4 Human Babies, organizes breast milk swaps through Facebook.
"You can find a mom within a few miles of home," Emma Kwasnica, founder of Human Milk 4 Human Babies, told USA Today. "It's very different than the anonymity of sharing milk online and shipping it out. ... They're meeting at play groups and they're handing over a cooler of frozen breast milk."
While meeting in person may feel safer, there are added health risks especially since the milk isn't screened. Kwasnica believes though that because of the personal contact the mothers have, it "it seems safer to get to know a mom and use her milk."