A new human milk depot at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett allows women to donate excess breast milk to mothers and high-risk infants in need.

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When Maren Oates’ water broke five weeks early, she felt caught off guard.

She learned her son would stay in the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU) at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett until doctors could make sure his body, including the ability to gain weight, was working properly. To ensure he kept growing while Oates’ milk came in, his diet was supplemented with formula.

“I knew immediately I wanted to breast-feed my baby,” she said. Even if her son was only in NICU for a few days, she would have preferred to use another mother’s milk instead of formula.

Now she produces more milk than her son can drink and she doesn’t want to waste it.

Oates plans to donate her excess breast milk to Providence as part of a new program to collect milk for high-risk babies with mothers who cannot produce their own.

The Everett depot is the first in the Puget Sound area and the only in Washington connected with Mothers’ Milk Bank.

Milk banks have been practiced in hospitals and other health-care settings since 1910, about the same time that blood banks were created, said Laraine Borman, director of Mothers’ Milk Bank in Denver. Mothers’ Milk Bank collects breast milk from depots and pasteurizes the milk to kill viruses and bacteria. Then, it ships the breast milk back to hospitals that need it.

The idea of a woman giving another mother her breast milk grew from wet nursing, a practice that is rarely used today. Borman said the idea is still there, but the process has become more technical and blood tests are required.

“We really advocate for the mothers to provide their own breast milk for the baby,” said Joanne Burke, lactation manager at Providence. But if they can’t, every baby should have access to it, she said.

Dr. Isabella Knox, a neonatologist at Providence, sees high-risk babies born underdeveloped and susceptible to infections all the time in NICU.

Both breast milk and baby formula contain forms of protein, soluble fats, vitamins and carbohydrates. While formula helps the babies grow, many nutrients are found only in breast milk, Knox said.

Breast milk carries antibodies designed by the mother’s immune system to fight bad bacteria and contains probiotics that help good bacteria grow. These nutrients survive the pasteurization and freezing process, required by Human Milk Banking Association of North America’s guidelines.

“One of the things that is special about milk donations is that it is a very limited thing in a person’s life,” Knox said. “To build a system in the country where we can get enough milk for the babies that need it will take a commitment from hospitals like Everett Providence and reaching out to mothers.”

A February article in the American Academy of Pediatrics reported that feeding a preterm baby human milk reduced the risk of the infant developing necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening intestinal infection, by 58 percent. Feeding a baby human milk for at least four months can reduce the risk of hospitalization due to respiratory infections by 72 percent.

While the impact of breast milk on other aspects of infant health may not be as obvious, the evidence for developing a baby’s immunity to infections is concrete, Knox said.

It hasn’t cost Providence much to start the program. Mothers’ Milk Bank pays for shipping and the refrigerator was donated; the main cost incurred by the program is dry ice to help keep the milk cold.

Burke anticipates the depot will catch on quickly.

Since the program started April 11, one woman has donated her milk and more than a dozen applications have been filed, including Oates’.

Once Oates completes the screening process, her milk — about 50 or 60 five-ounce bags — will be pasteurized and sent to various hospitals.

Oates is grateful for the good experience she had with Providence and is happy that the hospital is providing mothers with another option for nursing children, especially for premature babies who may benefit from human milk.

“I think most mothers would want to help another mom out if they could,” she said. “If I can help other mothers who want to give their babies breast milk, it’s an opportunity and a place for me to donate and not worry about it going to waste.”

Mary Jean Spadafora: (206) 464-2168 or mjspadafora@seattletimes.com.