Health and Harmony: Boca hospital’s milk bank helps preemies fend off ills

Jenny O’Sullivan (right), with her husband, Morgan, and children, Caitlin, 6, Sean, 4,

and Molly, 6 months. Jenny O’Sullivan donates breast milk to the Toppel Family Place

at Boca Raton Regional Hospital.

Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Lona O'Connor

   Jenny O’Sullivan’s three babies were all big — not one of them under 8 pounds — all born healthy and all breastfed. So when she heard there was a need for donated breast milk for premature and sick babies, she was more than willing to help.
    “I said to my husband, I think I can do this,” O’Sullivan said.
    She had already been pumping extra milk and freezing it before she went back to work as a teacher at A.D. Henderson School in Boca Raton. Her youngest child, Molly, is now 6 months old.
    So when she heard there was an urgent need for breast milk, she contacted the Toppel Family Place at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. After a thorough health screening for her and Molly, she became a donor.
    Toppel Family Place has been providing donated breast milk to fragile premature babies in its neonatal intensive care unit since 2013, but the nearest milk bank in those days was in Texas. In June, the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Florida opened in Orlando.
    “Boca Raton Regional Hospital has been a little dynamo of a depot,” said Kandis Natoli, executive director of the Milk Bank. “In the last six months, they have sent in over 4,000 ounces.”
    For any baby, breast milk is the best way to assure good health. But for premature babies, breast milk can mean survival. Premature birth is the No. 1 cause of infant death. One out of eight babies born in Florida is premature, according to the March of Dimes.
    “For a sick baby or a premature baby, it is easier to digest,” said Cari Tanella, nurse and lactation consultant at Toppel Place. “It also primes the gut with the right bacteria and it helps with so many diseases.”
    Compounding the problem, mothers of preemies are often unable to produce breast milk because they are sick or on medication after the birth.
    Human milk helps the premature infant build a strong immune system and fight infection, and can prevent necrotizing enterocolitis, a inflammatory bowel condition in preemies, Tanella said. Commercial baby formula does not have the health-protective qualities of breast milk.
    The new Milk Bank of Florida is one of 19 human milk banks across North America. Many of the milk banks opened after 2011, when the surgeon general drew attention to the importance of breastfeeding and called for milk banks in every state.
    According to the 2011 report, 75 percent of mothers start out breastfeeding but after six months, only 43 percent are still breastfeeding. The report sought to increase those rates to 82 percent and 61 percent by 2020.
    Breastfeeding can protect babies from ear and other infections, diarrhea, pneumonia and sudden infant death syndrome and has been linked with a lower incidence of asthma and obesity.
    Breastfeeding mothers have a decreased risk for breast and ovarian cancers, the surgeon general’s report said. Breastfeeding saves a family $1,200 in cost of baby formula.
    Donated milk is tested for bacteria and levels of nutrients. It is pasteurized to kill all known viruses and bacteria, then frozen. The milk is collected, processed and stored according to the standards of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. It can be obtained only by prescription.
    A woman’s body is capable of producing milk for several years. In older times, women breastfed their children until they were toddlers. One of the surgeon general’s goals for 2020  was that 34 percent of mothers would still be breastfeeding on their children’s first birthdays.
    Some of the Milk Bank’s most devoted donors are women whose babies needed donated milk. Once those mothers are able to produce milk, they will sometimes play catch-up so successfully that they have more than their babies need.
    “Once her supply catches up, she may start pumping a quart a day, even though her baby needs just a few ounces,” said Natoli. “They adjust and do well and start being overproducers. They want to help because somebody helped them.”
    Over her desk, Natoli has a photo of an infant sitting on a collection of 10 boxes of milk sent by the baby’s mother in Louisiana. The boxes contained a total of 2,000 ounces of milk.
    “When I looked at that picture, I said, ‘Oh, God bless this good woman,’ ” said Natoli. “It was just lovely.”

Lona O’Connor has a lifelong interest in health and healthy living. Send column ideas to

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