Breastfeeding and pumping mothers often refer to their milk as “liquid gold.” We have to admit that we agree! The milk that our hospitalized babies receive is life-sustaining nutrition, and the process that it goes through to become acceptable to feed to such fragile little ones is highly-complex. Have you ever wondered what happens to the carefully-pumped ounces that come to our freezers before they make their way to babies that need them? Read on for a breakdown of our pasteurization process!
Pasteurization begins with volunteers who are ready to spend their time helping others. Along with Clinical Assistant Lesley Cottrell, volunteers Janette and Amanda joined in on this particular week to make the magic happen! The process begins on a Thursday evening when milk from donor bags is thawed. We have a policy of always combining the milk of at least three donor moms so that we get a nice mix of different protein, fat, and calorie amounts. It’s important to remember that as a baby gets older, his or her mother begins producing milk that is higher in fat content generally, which is one way that nature ensures that a mother meets her baby’s biological needs. With different donor moms having different ages of babies, the fat, protein, and calorie amounts will likely not be consistent across the board. Once the milk is thawed in its bags, it is then combined and poured into large glass flasks and kept in the refrigerator overnight.
The highly-sensitive work of homogenization and bottling happens early on Friday mornings. Because an absolutely sterile environment is necessary, visitors and outsiders are not allowed into the rooms during the homogenization process. The staff and volunteers begin the process by homogenizing the milk while it is cold. This is done by lining up at least seven large glass flasks in a row, and then gently swirling the milk within, so as not to destroy cells. The milk is continually mixed as it is poured in small amounts from one flask into the next, and so on down the line. From there, the milk is carefully analyzed. Our special analyzer allows the staff and volunteers to know what the calorie content of the milk is, as well as protein, fat, and lactose contents. For our purposes, we are mostly interested in fat and calorie contents. It is important to know this difference because we bottle milk in 20-, 22-, and 24-calories-per-ounce amounts. The reason we do this is that hospitals will request different caloric amounts depending on the particular baby’s needs; some hospitals will also request milk with different protein amounts.
Next, the volunteers pour the homogenized milk from the analyzer into the bottles in which they will be delivered to the recipient babies. The bottling procedure occurs through a very sterile process because any growth or bacteria that is still lingering inside would become a huge problem. If any bacteria tampers with the sample, the entire batch has to be discarded. This would be a lot of wasted milk, though fortunately this is an extremely rare occurrence at OMMB. The bottling process is best done with three or four people, rather than a smaller number such as two, because it allows for a smoother process with less glove exchange (for instance, whoever caps the bottles is ONLY allowed to touch the caps and nothing else). With any less than three volunteers, the process takes a greater amount of time and puts the sterilization process at increased risk.
Once the milk is in bottles, it is placed into a specialized heater, where it is constantly monitored for temperature. The milk is heated to 62.5 degrees Celsius, and it needs to remain steady at 62.5 degrees for 30 minutes before it is then cooled back down. Once it gets cooled to the required temperature, it gets put into the freezer, where it waits in batches until hospitals request it.
We love our volunteers! Their hard work and dedication make us continually thankful as we strive to provide the best service to Oklahoma’s smallest and most critically-ill babies and their deserving families. Questions? Feel free to call us at 405.297.LOVE.