Nurturing Mothers’ Group celebration an opportunity to learn about new Alabama breast milk bank

This public health initiative aims to ensure area babies have an opportunity to receive vital ‘first-food nutrients’ essential to early development.

breast milkAugust is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and The Community Food Bank of Central Alabama, along with the University of Alabama at Birmingham Women and Infants Center, is hosting a Nurturing Mothers’ Group celebration from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26, as part of a community open house at Third Presbyterian Church, 617 22nd Street South.

UAB physician Rune Toms, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Division of Neonatology, will speak at the free public event, which also will spotlight the new Mothers’ Milk Bank of Alabama. The bank collects human breast milk to give to area hospitals in an effort to give vital “first-food nutrients” to newborns.

“Establishing a human milk bank in the Birmingham area is very much a public health initiative, and this is a major community outreach program that we have been active in starting and supporting with the goal of improving neonatal and infant health in our region,” Toms said.

According to Toms, the infant mortality rate in Alabama has historically been high.

“There are many positive initiatives around the state aimed at lowering the infant mortality rate with encouraging results,” he said. “Breast milk can improve infant health, optimize growth and development, and potentially reduce illness and death in this high-risk population.”

Low birth weight infants and those born prematurely are at a particularly high risk.

“There are many positive initiatives around the state aimed at lowering the infant mortality rate with encouraging results. Breast milk can improve infant health, optimize growth and development, and potentially reduce illness and death in this high-risk population.”

“The food bank believes passionately that breast milk provided to preterm sick infants will help children get a head start on a healthy development and start those children on the right path,” said Mary Kelley, executive director of The Community Food Bank. “As the conversation around food continues to evolve, one of the most important pieces of the puzzle is the concept of ‘the first food,’ breast milk, and UAB has been a wonderful partner in this initiative. Its leadership, along with that of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit team, has been pivotal in helping us get this initiative off the ground.”

UAB sponsors initiatives like the Nurturing Mothers’ Group and the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Alabama as part of its efforts to provide the highest-quality care to area mothers and their children.

Providing support to community groups is part of UAB’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative journey. The BFHI is a global program that was launched by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund in 1991 to encourage and recognize hospitals and birthing centers that offer an optimal level of care for infant feeding and mother/baby bonding.

UAB’s Women and Infants Center is engaged in a comprehensive, detailed and thorough process to earn the hospital the Baby-Friendly designation.

The process of handling and pasteurizing donated breast milk is very strict, and Kelley says the Mothers’ Milk Bank will follow the quality-control standards and guidelines set forth by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.

“The guidelines are extremely strict and maintain a specific protocol to ensure breast milk is processed in a clean, food-grade environment,” Kelley said. “The food bank is skilled at the operations that a milk bank requires: soliciting donors, soliciting product, processing that product and safely distributing it to those in need.”

All donor mothers undergo a preliminary phone questionnaire screening, followed by a blood test. Once they are cleared for donation, milk is donated, pooled together and pasteurized. Following pasteurization, each batch of donor breast milk is then post-cultured to ensure no bacterial growth. 

In the history of nonprofit Human Milk Bank Association of North America milk banks, not a single baby has become ill from donor breast milk. In fact, they have thrived.

“This process is very important to us, and we can ensure excellent quality of the milk given to some of our most fragile babies,” Toms said. “In addition to pasteurizing the milk, we will be able to divide the donated milk by nutritional components and calories, enabling us to provide higher caloric milk — or higher protein content — to babies who need it.”

Donated breast milk will be provided to any infants in need throughout the city, regardless of the hospital.

The Southeast has historically been a region of relatively low breast-feeding rates, although Toms says it is a trend that seems to be changing with more mothers feeling strongly about the importance of breast-feeding.

UAB aims to provide the support these mothers need in part because research shows breast milk to be effective in the development of the babies — both pre- and full term.

“Breast milk is so much more than just nutrition,” Toms said. “When a baby is born, the intestines are naïve to the outside world — the world of proteins, carbohydrate, fats, and also bacteria and viruses. Breast milk creates an environment in the neonate’s intestines that optimizes absorption of nutrients.”

Breast milk also presents good bacteria to the infant’s immune system in the intestines in a way that allows the baby’s immune system to develop a balanced memory of its own cells, bacteria and other foreign products.

“This results in a baby who can absorb all nutrients, vitamins and minerals in an optimal manner and develop a well-adjusted immune system that will harmonize with the environment, and thus thrive,” Toms said.

UAB faculty and staff recently joined The Community Food Bank on a site visit to the Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas, a mentor and facilitator for Birmingham’s bank. Sylvia Edwards, UAB lead of Lactation Services, says the trip was especially valuable and reinforced the opportunity the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Alabama will provide to families in Birmingham and throughout the state.

“What’s especially great is that we already have mothers here in the area donating their milk,” Edwards said. “We hope anyone interested in learning more about becoming a donor will join us Aug. 26 to learn what a tremendously positive impact this can have on our community.”