Babies go without when supplies run low

Jannette Festival has little time to spare. Her organization is running out of what she calls “liquid gold”—human breast milk.

“All of a sudden our freezers are empty,” said Festival, director of the Calgary Mothers’ Milk Bank.

The not-for-profit organization distributes up to 28 litres of human breast milk daily to premature and sick babies who are not able to receive milk from their mothers.

Since opening in 2012, the milk bank’s biggest challenge has been maintaining a solid base of donors. The moment a donor stops breastfeeding her own child, she can no longer donate.

For Festival and her team, this means having to continually search for new moms.

“We’re always concerned meeting the needs of the babies,” said Festival. “It’s a real balancing act.”

Breast milk donations are combined in flasks and filtered before being homogenized and pasteurized.
Photo: Paul Brooks
Across town, in the quiet neonatal intensive care unit at Rockyview General Hospital, Dr. Doug Yeung underscores the urgency for human breast milk.

“It has a number of protective factors that haven’t been replicated in formula,” said Yeung.

Aside from delivering optimal nutrition, human breast milk protects against infection and disease and can help heal tissues.

“It’s not just food,” Festival said. “It’s a medicine.”

Processing, screening and distribution — all of it costs money.

At a small lab in south Calgary, three volunteers wear hairnets, facemasks and gloves as they carefully mix human breast milk to even out the nutritional content. They then load bottles into state-of-the-art pasteurizing machines.

The real cost of one 4 oz. bottle of milk is $17. Alberta Health Services covers the cost for the sickest babies who are in the hospital. Leftover supplies are made available to families of sick or compromised babies, but only at the recommendation of a doctor or midwife.


Produced by Paul Brooks

“We don’t make huge dollars here,” said Festival. “It’s run off of love.”

The women who donate to the bank are not compensated.

Calgary resident Candace DiGiacomo said she understands the unique life-giving properties of her donation. She began donating her excess milk after a nurse told her about the milk bank.

Candace DiGiacomo produces more breast milk than her daughter needs, so she donates her excess supply to the Calgary Mothers’ Milk Bank.
Photo: Paul Brooks
DiGiacomo’s daughter Olivia had trouble feeding from the breast, so DiGiacomo started pumping and feeding her daughter by bottle.

That’s when she discovered she was a so-called “super producer.”

She said donating milk helped her come to terms with the disappointment of not being able to breastfeed her child.

“As a mother, you feel (breastfeeding is) of one of your duties and it was really hard,” said DiGiacomo. “So for me that led me down the path to be able to donate and help so many babies.”

Women interested in donating to the Calgary Mothers’ Milk Bank should visit the organization’s website at www.calgarymothersmilkbank.ca

pbrooks@cjournal.ca