This story can also be found on the publication's website.
By ARIAN SMEDLEY
Athens Messenger contributor
During Baby Storytime at the Athens Public Library, 15-month-old Grace Frith plays “Ring Around the Rosie” with the other toddlers. A few moments later, the blue-eyed blond with Shirley Temple-like curls settles down to play with a book.
By all accounts, Grace is an average little girl full of wonder and curiosity. It might be hard to believe that just over a year ago, she started out life with a 12-day hospital stay and had to be fed through a syringe.
An intrauterine growth restriction that limited Grace’s nutrition in the womb resulted in her being born early, at 37 weeks, via Caesarean section at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital’s Birth Center. She weighed in at a mere 3 pounds, 14 ounces at birth, said her mother, Cary Frith, a journalism professor at Ohio University. By comparison, a full-term baby, born at around 40 weeks, usually weighs between 7 and 8 pounds.
In the past, given the circumstances, baby Grace likely would have been given formula during her stay in the hospital because her mother’s milk hadn’t come in yet. But for the past year, O’Bleness has been able to offer donated breast milk.
“I didn’t know donor milk existed,” Frith said, via email. “Michele Biddlestone (O’Bleness’ lactation consultant) informed us about it, and Dr. Connie McCarroll, our neonatologist from University Medical Associates, recommended it.”
Donor milk is most commonly given to babies who are premature or in the neonatal intensive care unit. But O’Bleness was the first hospital in the state to also make it available to healthy babies who are not able to get their mother’s milk, said Georgia Morrow, coordinator of Mothers’ Milk Bank of Ohio, based in Columbus.
Grace is one of 32 babies at O’Bleness who have been given donated breast milk since the program began in January 2010. Since then, the hospital has dispensed 69 3-ounce bottles to babies in need.
The hospital started out just as a collection site, where mothers drop off their extra milk, in 2006. The milk is shipped to the Columbus milk bank where it is pasteurized and refrozen. Since starting as a collection site, O’Bleness’ 18 donors have given almost 13,000 ounces — or more than 100 gallons — of milk.
“I feel really proud of the amount of milk our donors have been providing,” said Biddlestone, who initiated the creation of both the collection site and the local donor milk program. “Sometimes they bring hundreds at a time, and I’m just really amazed by them.”
O’Bleness has had such success with its local donor milk program that two other Ohio hospitals have developed similar initiatives using O’Bleness as a guide, Morrow said.
“I very much appreciate the efforts of Michele Biddlestone, who has coordinated the operation of a collection site at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital … and applaud the management, administration and medical staff for making donor milk an option for the breast-feeding babies in their hospital,” Morrow said, via email.
Plenty of research has documented the advantages to babies, mothers, families and society from breast-feeding and the use of human milk when feeding little ones, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But despite the hype, less than a third of those offered the milk at O’Bleness actually accept it, Biddlestone said.
“I don’t know if there’s a stigma, or if culturally there’s a misunderstanding about pasteurized donor milk,” she said.
The cost for the milk might explain some mother’s hesitation, as it’s not always covered by health insurance. The hospital sells it for $12 per ounce. The price tag helps pay for the extensive screening, processing and transportation fees. A newborn eats very little, Biddlestone said, so an ounce might yield several feedings. And she stressed that the cost doesn’t have to be an issue. The hospital has special funds for those who qualify.
Frith paid for her baby’s milk supply out-of-pocket. Her health insurance doesn’t cover donor milk.
“Formula is viewed as an acceptable alternative, but the medical community agrees that donor milk is superior,” she said. “We should pressure insurers to cover it.”
Biddlestone said she is encouraged that the hospital was able to serve 32 babies with donor milk. But she hopes that, with time, more mothers who are offered the milk accept it.
“When (mother’s milk is) not sufficient, human milk is always best,” she said. “Until we truly understand the risk of formula, our culture will continue to consider human milk and formula to be equivalent. And it just isn’t.”
Frith, who continues to breast-feed, was “relieved” to have donor milk as an option until her own supply was established.
“It was clearly the most nutritious choice and also exposed Grace to a variety of antibodies,” she said.