Kim Updegrove: Executive Director of Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin

Mothers’ Milk Bank provides donor human milk to 160 hospitals in 26 states plus Texas, and hundreds of patients at home, all thanks to the amazing work of donors who donate breastmilk to babies in need via the milk bank. The Milk Bank emphasizes the importance of education on how to have a successful breastfeeding journey and hopes to spread the word about the benefits of donor human milk. As the Executive Director, Kim’s favorite part of her job is hearing the stories of the women and children she is able to help and watch their children grow because of donated human milk. August is National Breastfeeding Month, so celebrate by learning something new in this interview!


How can donor milk help save babies’ lives?

Before starting this job, I delivered almost 600 children as a nurse midwife, and a lot of them relied on human milk to survive. All babies deserve human milk, but for those who are born premature or with health issues, it’s necessary for survival. Some mothers aren’t able to produce milk for their child, which is where the milk bank steps in. There are many reasons why women can’t produce milk— sometimes when a baby is premature, the mother’s breast tissue doesn't develop enough to reach it’s milk producing stage. Mothers who give birth prematurely may struggle with breast milk production because of the physical separation from their baby who is kept in the neonatal intensive care unit for months, or the stress of delivering a baby early. It’s also an equity issue, since some women who can produce milk don’t access education teaching them how to breastfeed, or they lack support for reaching their breastfeeding goals. Just because mothers are pregnant and give birth doesn’t mean they know how to breastfeed. Without access to lactation consultations and education, huge disparities emerge between those who are able to successfully give their babies human milk and those who are not successful.

Your organization is so unique, how did it get its start?

As of 1998, there was no milk bank in Austin and only 4 in the entire United States. The babies in the NICU who needed human milk the most didn’t have access to it unless their mothers could produce milk. In the NICU, what we feed these tiny babies has serious implications on their rates of survival. Dr. Audelio Rivera, one of the founders of the milk bank who worked at the St. David’s Hospital NICU experienced the inaccessibility of human milk for vulnerable infants in 1988 when he admitted two 24-week babies, one of whom received her mother’s milk while the other received formula. Despite being given the best possible care, the baby given formula didn’t survive. Tiny infants who do not receive human milk have a much higher likelihood of developing necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) which destroys the intestinal system and is often associated with death. Cases like those inspired Dr. Rivera and his colleague Dr. George Sharpe to start a milk bank in Austin so that no baby would die because of a lack of access to human milk.

What circumstances lead a child to need prescribed human milk?

About 80-85% of our milk goes to babies in the NICU, these are babies that are born with medical complications. Most of them are premature and some are born with cardiac or intestinal issues. These babies have a very difficult or impossible time tolerating anything other than human milk. The rest of the milk goes to babies in the community who either have a medical need for milk or are healthy but their families would like them to have milk that they cannot produce. Human milk is a food and source of nutrition, but is also a medicine that has immune benefits and growth enzymes that are passed to the baby with each feeding. It makes babies’ brains larger, allows their organs to mature, and is a magical substance that isn’t fully understood. Even as a person of science I feel confident saying that breastmilk is “magical” because of all its components coming together to save babies’ lives.

Are there any misconceptions about donated human milk that you want to clarify?

There are so many out there. Some believe that donated milk doesn’t have the benefits of milk coming directly from the mother since it’s pasteurized. However, the processing of donated milk is necessary to make it safe for a non-biologically related baby to consume and doesn’t eliminate any of the nutrients. There’s also a lot of questions out there about who receives donated milk. Some think the bank serves mothers who are “too lazy” to breastfeed themselves, when nothing could be further from the truth. Our mothers simply want to do what is best for themselves and their babies, and sometimes that requires using donated milk. Every healthy lactating mom with an infant under one year of age can become a milk donor by simply completing a request for a screening interview through milkbank.org, or calling 512-494-0800. Express your inner lifesaver and become a milk donor today.