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Gundersen Health System has become the first official Milk Depot in western Wisconsin where breastfeeding mothers can donate excess supplies for premature babies in hospitals.

“Research has shown that breast milk is the best source of nutrition for babies, and new research shows it is best for the tiniest preemies,” said Signe Susdorf, Women’s Health program manager at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse.

Neonatal intensive care units especially need the milk, but there is a shortage nationally, Susdorf said.

Meanwhile, “our lactation consultants were getting calls from women with freezers full of milk because they produced too much, had quit breastfeeding or had lost a baby” and still were lactating, she said.

“We’ve had women call and say they have 500 ounces,” she said.

Donating, an increasingly popular option as the needs become more known, can be therapeutic for women whose babies have died, Susdorf said.

“To me, it’s almost like an organ donation,” she said. “It’s really an emotional healing through the milk donation.”

Women who want to donate to the Milk Depot should take it to Gundersen’s Onalaska clinic, which will ship it to the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank for screening because no such facility exists in Wisconsin yet.

Those who are approved can continue to take milk donations to the depot, which will send it to the milk bank for pasteurization and distribution to hospital NICUs or individuals on an outpatient basis, by prescription.

Eventually, Gundersen hopes to use the Mothers Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes, which is in the formative stages between Milwaukee and Chicago, Susdorf said.

The Western Great Lakes facility is the result of the 2011 merger of the Mothers’ Milk Association of Wisconsin and Illinois Milk Bank Project. When it is up and running, it will provide milk by prescription for premature and sick babies in Wisconsin and Illinois.

The banks are not set up for private sales, although Susdorf said she hopes that could be possible in the future, especially for adoptive families.

“We just need to get a lot of women participating” before it could reach that scale, she said.

Although some women get breast milk from family members or friends and some even buy it on the Internet, Susdorf raised a caution flag on potential health risks with those methods.

“The bank tests this milk, and it is pasteurized,” she said. “This is reassuring because, if it is not tested, there could be disease or contamination.”

Others are less concerned about the risks.

“It’s still better than formula,” said Amanda McConaghy, leader of the year-old La Crosse La Leche League, which encourages breastfeeding.

“Most of the time, women take that into account, and it’s their choice,” McConaghy said. “It’s not difficult to do on their own — just heat it in a pan in their kitchen.”

Two Facebook pages, Human Milk 4 Human Babies and Eats on Feets, connect women looking for milk with those who are donating it, McConaghy said.

“There’s no money involved,” said McConaghy, who said she has donated to Human Milk 4 Human Babies.

Another site, Only the Breast, is a forum for donating, buying and selling, but it advertises that it provides lab testing for those who want to be certified as safe providers.

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