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Colorado moms turn to breast milk donors amid baby formula shortage

Neala Harper got a nagging feeling each time she fed her daughter.

She fed baby Penny almost every two hours, and during those times she’d think about the families struggling to find formula as stores struggle to keep enough supply in stock amid a nationwide shortage. Their babies were hungry, too.

Harper, who lives in Lakewood, had pumped more breast milk than Penny, now 3-months-old, could eat despite the baby’s frequent feedings. The milk sat frozen in Harper’s freezer.

So it was with this sense of urgency, that the first-time mother posted on Nextdoor, the neighborhood-centric social media platform.

“Breast milk available – I’m not sure how this might work but we are in an unusual and devastating situation with the baby formula shortage,” Harper, 37, wrote in late May. “I had a baby late February of this year and am fortunate to be able to breastfeed. I have frozen breast milk available so if you or someone you know is in need, please DM me.”

As the nationwide baby formula shortage persists, Colorado mothers, such as Harper, are turning to social media to donate their excess breast milk.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Neala Harper breastfeeds her three-month-old daughter Penny at their home in Lakewood on June 6, 2022.

Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend parents against using breast milk that is donated directly from an individual because it is not screened for infectious diseases and other potential risks as it would be if it came from a milk bank. But mothers say they are just trying to help other parents feed their babies amid a crisis and that by donating via social media, they are able to quickly — and cheaply — get milk to those in need.

“I thought I’d go ahead and put it out there on Nextdoor and see if anyone would reach out,” Harper said, adding, “Putting it out there I was a little nervous. It’s kind of odd.”

But, she added, “It’s one of those things, it’s worth it. If I’m able to help feed a baby it’s worth it. It’s worth the risk.”

Baby formula has become increasingly scarce since an Abbott Nutrition factory in Michigan closed earlier this year because of contamination. The FDA warned families and caregivers in February not to use recalled Similac, Alimentum and EleCare powdered infant formulas produced by the plant.

The Abbott plant resumed production over the weekend, but the company has said it will take weeks before more formula is on store shelves.

In the meantime, stores, such as CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens, are limiting the amount of formula a person can purchase.

Last month, Gov. Jared Polis declared the formula shortage a disaster emergency, directing $220,000 to Colorado’s health department to be used to subsidize the cost of donor breast milk for families in need. The money will also cover shipping fees for those who donate or receive milk.

The state health department is also expanding the formula available under the Colorado Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children to brands, such as Earth’s Best, Gerber, Tippy Toes, said spokesman James Quirk in an email.

“We encourage parents and caregivers who are facing challenges with finding formula to work with their child’s healthcare provider for recommendations on other ways to feed their infant or toddler if their regular formula is not available,” he said.

David Zalubowski, The Associated Press

Rebecca Heinrich, director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank, loads frozen milk donated by lactating mothers from plastic bags into bottles for distribution to babies Friday, May 13, 2022, at the foundation’s headquarters in Arvada.

Donations also increase at milk banks

Medical experts recommend parents go through milk banks when searching for donated breast milk as mothers have to go through intensive health screenings to make sure the milk is safe for babies. For example, Mothers’ Milk Bank in Arvada asks mothers donating milk about the medications they take and if they have recently been sick. Doctors must also sign off on a mother donating her milk and a blood test is performed to test for infectious diseases.

Once donated, the milk is mixed with other donors’ supplies to even out nutrients and reach about 20 calories per ounce. Mothers’ Milk Bank dispenses the blended milk into four-ounce glass bottles, pasteurizes the milk, and then freezes it until it is tested once more to make sure it is safe for babies, said director Rebecca Heinrich.

If there is no alternative to breast milk that is donated informally, such as by a friend, then parents should ask the donor about any drugs or medications they may use and if they have any viruses, such as Hepatitis or HIV, that can be transmitted via the milk, according to Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“If the person’s answers to those questions give you assurance the person’s breastmilk would not pose a risk to the child, this could be a reasonable option,” the hospital said on its website.

The hospital advises against homemade formula for babies or diluting formula.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Neala Harper holds her three-month-old daughter Penny after feeding her at their home in Lakewood on June 6, 2022.

About 85% of the milk donated to the Mother’s Milk Bank goes to babies in neonatal intensive care units, but the organization is trying to increase its production to help more families outside of hospitals, Heinrich said.

Mothers’ Milk Bank typically served about three or four families per day before the formula shortage. But that increased to 10 families per day by the end of May. Families are able to get about 10 bottles of milk from the organization and to make sure some is available to everyone, the milk bank is doing “a little bit of rationing,” Heinrich said.

“We approved a record number of donors in May and that has got to be due to moms recognizing the need in the community, the stress, the fear from all these parents just looking for something to feed their babies with,” She said.

Chelsea Thomas, a mother in Denver, has donated to Mothers’ Milk Bank in the past. But after the birth of her third child last year —  a boy named Enoch — Thomas liked the idea of giving her excess milk to someone directly and for free.

Like Harper, Thomas recently posted on Nextdoor saying she had extra breast milk. By using Nextdoor, Thomas felt she’d find someone close to home who could use the extra milk — meaning it would be less likely to spoil during transportation since the milk needs to stay frozen. No one has reached out as of last week.

“I was hoping to find someone in the neighborhood who could use it,” the 35-year-old said. “With everything that’s going on in the world, it feels like there are so few things where you can help so I was trying.”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Jerusalem Frierson has a small supply of frozen donated breast milk in a freezer at her home in Denver on June 6, 2022.

“I hope this works”

Harper, the mother in Lakewood, had two people message her after she posted on Nextdoor about having breastmilk available to donate. One person, a foster mother, never followed up.

The second person was a Denver mother with a child about the same age as Harper’s daughter.

Jerusalem Frierson was able to breastfeed her 3-month-old daughter, Zayma, but it wasn’t enough. She needed to supplement Zayma’s feedings. Frierson used formula during the first two weeks in addition to breastfeeding but has increasingly relied on donated breast milk to feed her daughter.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Jerusalem Frierson bottle feeds her three-month-old daughter Zayma on June 6, 2022, in Denver. The bottle contains donated breast milk.

“Donor milk is always preferred,” Frierson said. “With all the COVID and sickness around, I want (Zayma) to have donor milk.”

It’s not the first time the 41-year-old has used donated breast milk. After her first child, 4-year-old Selah, was born, Frierson partnered with a woman who donated breast milk for about four months before using formula.

Before she accepts donated milk, Frierson said, she tries to ask the person questions, such as if they are taking medications and how the milk has been stored. There have been cases where she has declined donor milk because she wasn’t comfortable with a person’s answer.

“You do your due diligence and the rest you leave up to god and pray, ‘I hope this works,’” Frierson said.

It’s harder to find a person who can donate consistently this time around so Frierson has used milk from about four or five different people, including at least 80 ounces from Harper.

Frierson is preparing to move Zayma to formula if she can’t find more donated milk, but every time she calls a store they are out of stock. She has six cans of Earth’s Best sensitivity formula that her brother and a friend found in Colorado Springs.

“It is definitely stressful,” Frierson said. “I’m doing my part to make sure I have backup plans and supplies and at the same time not be a hoarder either.”