Waldo County General Hospital and Pen Bay Medical Center are putting a contemporary spin on the ages-old practice of wet-nursing. In partnership with Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, the two hospitals have opened milk depots where nursing mothers can donate their excess milk to benefit fragile premature infants.

“It’s all about saving babies’ lives,” Cynthia Cohen said during the WCGH milk depot grand opening May 29. “Every ounce a mom donates can feed multiple babies in a neonatal ICU.”

Cohen, director of client relations for Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast in Newton Upper Falls, Massachusetts, explained that premature babies, and even tinier micro-preemies (weighing less than 1 pound, 12 ounces, or of fewer than 26 weeks’ gestation), require only a very small quantity of milk to survive.

“We have to make sure these fragile babies have enough nutrition,” she said, and mothers’ milk is the ideal source.

It is especially protective against a life-threatening condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, which affects one in 10 of the smallest preterm infants. Human breast milk is estimated to lower the rist of this condition by 79%, WCGH said in a news release.

"Mothers everywhere have milk in freezers that's going to waste," Cohen said. "Why not donate it and save lives?"

Although wet-nursing pretty much disappeared from western culture many years ago, the sharing of breast milk has been growing in popularity. A trend known as cross-nursing has gained traction in both urban and rural communities, where mothers — for necessity or convenience or some other reason — are breastfeeding each other's babies.

Wet-nursing is also emerging as a service business, with nursing mothers for hire. Today you can even buy breast milk on eBay.

Yet some stigma remains around breastfeeding, which WCGH professionals are addressing in the community with a comprehensive educational program for expectant moms and their partners (see sidebar). The lactation professionals also caution against accepting milk from unknown or unscreened, untested sources.

Cohen explains that Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast screens donors, collects milk, pasteurizes the milk, has it tested by an independent lab, and distributes it to hospital neonatal units and outpatient babies who need it. Although pasteurizing does remove some of breast milk's natural benefits, it protects fragile premature infant immune systems.

Kathleen Hastings, RN, regional director of women's health and a board-certified lactation consultant, said the risk with breast milk is similar to that with blood products. "Anything that can be transmitted through blood can be transmitted through breast milk," she said, citing danger of virus, medications, drugs, HIV, hepatitis, CMV.

"We want to be sure moms are finding the safest way" to feed their infants, she said. "Newborns don't process the proteins in other milks and soy formula. Breast milk is easier for babies to digest, and it has all the right micro-nutrients."

Cohen said milk depots like the new one at WCGH "are incredibly important partners …. They serve two important purposes: they screen donors and collect, store and ship milk from donors to us; and they're partners in the community — they do outreach and donor education.

"And moms who have extra milk in their freezers can donate and save babies' lives," she said. "One ounce can provide up to three meals for a premature baby."

Dr. Jennifer McKenna, director of women’s health for Coastal Healthcare Alliance, said, "We're always looking for more donors; we need more partners."

Ultimately, the hospital's goal is to be able to provide milk for babies and moms who need it here in Waldo County. Currently, Maine Medical Center in Portland is the only hospital in Maine that receives and uses human milk from the milk bank.

"We would love to do that," McKenna said. "If a mom is not producing or doesn't have enough milk of her own, we would like to have a resource to give her baby breast milk instead of formula. We'd like to be able to provide milk to well-baby units. We would love to have all of that available locally."

To that end, WCGH is promoting the health and well-being of moms and their babies, doing outreach, providing lactation counselors and consultants and rooms at the hospital where women can pump breast milk "in privacy and comfort," and "normalizing breast milk as the best choice for babies," she said.

"It's a process," McKenna added. "And the milk depot is a first step."

In addition to aiding preemies, donated milk can provide a few days of support for newborns whose mothers aren't able to breastfeed immediately. "It's a great crossover," Hastings said. "Maybe she can't breastfeed today, but she can in three days."

"It's clear to me we have mothers in the community who have milk to donate," Hastings added.

Teagan O'Toole-Ray is one of them. She brought daughter Josie, 10 months, to the grand opening, along with three large plastic bags filled with packets of her frozen milk. "I'm a family practice physician's assistant in Old Town, so I was aware that milk can be donated," O'Toole-Ray said. "When Josie was about 4 months old, I called and said 'Please, take this milk — 200 to 300 ounces — out of my freezer!"

Her donation at the WCGH grand opening brought her donated total to date to 15 gallons.

"I was pumping an extra 5 or 8 ounces a day," she said. "A simple blood test, a few screening questions over the phone, and a FedEx package arrived with everything I needed for shipping."

Donating can also be a consideration in the loss of a baby. A milk bank brochure notes that in the wake of such a tragedy, the donation of breast milk can be healing — "a loving gift in memory of your baby to help sick or fragile infants."

A grieving donor mother wrote: "I am beyond thankful to Mothers' Milk Bank Northeast for simply being there as an option for me to donate my breast milk, as that was one of the largest parts of my healing after loss. There was no better way to honor my daughter and have something good come from her passing."

With the opening last week of the milk depots in Waldo and Knox counties, Mothers' Milk Bank Northeast now has 24 depots in eight states, including four now in Maine toward a goal of six. The nonprofit milk bank has been operating since 2011.

To donate milk, first review guidelines at milkbankne.org/donate, and then call 617-527-6263, ext. 3, or visit donate@milkbankne.org for a screening. Approved donors can then drop off their milk at the WCGH depot by scheduling an appointment with a lactation consultant at 505-4140. At Pen Bay, the number to call is 301-8343.

Note: Jenifer Harris, director of communications and public affairs, wishes to clarify that WCGH does not offer wet-nursing.