Lactation consultant Chaya Millet established a kosher milk bank to help moms feed the most vulnerable babies
Nechama had two small children and was looking forward to the birth of her third. But things didn’t go as planned. She was only at 28 weeks when she woke up at five a.m. with strong contractions. She was rushed to the hospital and within just an hour, delivered her baby. He weighed only two pounds, and was whisked away to the NICU, with tubes and wires protruding from all over his small body.
While he was too small to eat orally and required tube feeding, the staff told Nechama that the best thing for him would be mother’s milk rather than formula. When she heard that, she burst into tears. It always takes time for mothers of preemies to build up even a small milk supply, and the stress of the unexpected early delivery plus the anticipated prolonged stay in the hospital had affected her ability to pump.
Nechama’s husband quickly called their rav, who said that as the milk was a medical necessity for the baby, it would be permitted for him to be given milk from a general milk bank, but of course, it would be preferable to find a Jewish mother’s milk. Many networking calls, text messages, and emails later, Nechama’s husband was able to obtain kosher milk for their baby boy.
“It was hard enough to be in the hospital with such a preemie who was fighting for his life,” Nechama remembers. “Even worse was that I couldn’t help him. The thought of giving him non-Jewish milk was so painful to me. Being able to give my son milk from a Jewish woman made the situation so much more bearable. And the sense of achdus I felt from some woman I never have and probably will never meet made me feel so loved and cared for.”
A Need Indeed
Unfortunately, Nechama’s story isn’t unique. About ten percent of babies born in the US each year are born prematurely, and these babies — especially micro preemies (babies born before 26 weeks’ gestation) — often cannot be fed formula because of their compromised digestive systems. Mother’s milk is the only thing they can tolerate. And, of course, mother’s milk has proven health benefits, particularly for these fragile babies.
Chaya Millet, a Lakewood-based lactation consultant and La Leche League leader for over 20 years, often fields calls from distressed parents about babies in need of mother’s milk. (It’s preferable that babies only receive milk from a Jewish woman; while there are cases of medical necessity in which non-Jewish milk would be permitted, a competent halachic authority must be consulted.)
To further complicate matters, the hospital won’t let parents bring in milk from a friend, sister, or neighbor. It has to be pasteurized and approved. A few years ago, someone asked Chaya if a kosher milk bank existed. She said no, but that set her thinking. Why isn’t there one? There’s enough Yiddishe milk to go around.
Chaya approached the executive director of the New York Milk Bank and asked if she would be open to establishing a kosher milk bank. The director was very interested, sharing with Chaya that she’s received many requests for kosher milk over the years. Chaya reached out to numerous kashrus organizations but many were apprehensive because of the halachic complexities involved, such as verifying a donor’s Jewishness and keeping track of the milk throughout transportation.
When she tried the Star-K, Chaya found a willing partner. They were excited to provide a hechsher for this endeavor as a chesed to the larger Jewish community, and Rav Shmuel A. Heinemann took charge of the kashrus end of the project.
A milk bank is highly regulated, and the milk is basically treated as blood. Anyone who donates needs to first sterilize all of their pumping equipment and use approved milk bags only. The milk is then pasteurized and tested, and if any contamination is detected, the milk is thrown away. As the saying goes, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk… unless it was pumped mother’s milk, of course.”
Establishing the Kosher Milk Bank within the framework of the larger New York Milk Bank took many months and a lot of hard work and dedication. Systems, labels, and plans needed to be implemented. The New York Milk Bank added a question about keeping kosher to the questionnaire donors fill out. If anyone answers in the affirmative, their information is forwarded to the Kosher Milk Bank to see if they qualify as a kosher milk donor.
Potential donors to the Kosher Milk Bank also fill out questionnaires and submit it together with a letter from a rav who can vouch that she is Jewish and shomer Torah u’mitzvos. The pasteurization and packaging process is always supervised by Rav Heinemann or one of the mashgichim under his direction.
Once the milk is verified as coming from a kosher source and passes the New York Milk Bank’s screening and pasteurizing process, it’s sealed, labeled, frozen, and sent to hospitals and parents with prescriptions for it. The demand far outweighs the supply, and the Kosher Milk Bank is always looking for donors. Interestingly, the current formula shortage has led to increased awareness of the need for mother’s milk, and more women have called to donate. Chaya explains that the Kosher Milk Bank is only for babies with a medical need for mother’s milk. While a mother who has to leave her healthy five-month-old for two days may prefer not to give him formula, she says, it’s still an option, unlike babies for whom formula is contraindicated.
Making a Difference
Talia is another mother who knows how vital a need the Kosher Milk Bank fills. She gave birth to her son at 35 weeks. His digestive system wasn’t fully developed, and nursing proved to be quite difficult. She tried to establish a milk supply by pumping alone, but it took time and was very challenging. Her son could not digest formula, and every time they tried, he writhed in pain and vomited it right up.
“It was hard enough to give him someone else’s milk and to this day, I am so grateful for the times I was able to receive donated milk from a Jewish woman,” she says. “It made it so much easier emotionally.”
Any mother who’s been in the frightening predicament of not being able to feed her baby understands how vital the need is. When Chaya started working on this project, she asked a friend if she could help with graphics work. Having had multiple babies born prematurely, her friend was eager to get involved.
While the need is so great, Chaya is careful not to put pressure on anyone to donate. She understands that most women don’t necessarily have extra milk or just can’t find the time to pump. But those women who do have an excess supply and can find the time to pump can really make a difference, she explains.
“We have kein ayin hara many healthy babies and healthy mothers in our communities, and those who can donate can care for the tiniest and most vulnerable members of Klal Yisrael. Together, we can do this.”
To get involved with the Kosher Milk Bank, contact them via Mishpacha.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 802)
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