The United States has the highest infant mortality rate among the world’s 27 wealthiest nations. For every 1,000 babies born here, six will die. A baby born in the U.S. is three times more likely to die than one born in Finland or Japan, and – in some parts of our country – a baby is actually more likely to die than in countries like Lebanon, Botswana, or Bahrain.

How can this be, when the U.S. claims to have the most advanced medical system in the world? Even more importantly – what can be done?

For years, academics, medical professionals, and foundations have piloted programs to reduce infant mortality, offering more prenatal and postpartum services, more community outreach and education, breastfeeding classes, and more. And while these are all steps in the right direction, the mortality rate has still remained stubbornly high.

An Idea is Born

Since premature births are the leading cause of infant mortality, improving health outcomes for premature babies is of the highest priority. Luckily, one way to improve outcomes was staring us right in the face – a solution that is natural, extensively tested, proven effective, and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics: breast milk.

A mother’s ability to produce the exact right kind of milk for her baby is truly a miracle. But not all mothers can produce milk, especially when their baby is born prematurely. But what about donor milk? Would that work?

The answer is a resounding yes, and thanks to the work of many, including Denny Civic Solutions and DMMConsulting, many babies in Pennsylvania’s Level 3 (and above) NICUs are now receiving donor milk – and the results are amazing.

Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank is Launched

Tackling a problem like this starts with strong, committed leadership. Led by a visionary lactation consultant and an amazing board of medical advisors, the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank began with a sound business plan. That plan included a list of action items that would help turn the Milk Bank into a reality – and that’s where Denny Civic Solutions came in.

First things first – DCS captured a deep understanding of the history and facts in order to comprehend the science, benefits, and concerns that surround donor breast milk. We learned that many countries have been using donor milk for years, that the science backs the idea 100 percent, and that donor milk can reduce length of hospital stays, cut down costs, increase breast feeding rates, and – most of all – save lives.

Building the message – We developed the overall theme with the powerful “An Ounce” campaign, working with a longtime advertising partner of ours, Blender, Inc. We crafted specific messages for each of our targeted audiences – funders, health care providers, insurance companies, donors, mothers, and public officials.

Raising the funds – we developed and implemented a fundraising campaign resulting in $1.5 million raised to date, exceeding almost every other milk bank in the United States in the process.

Setting the standard – we worked from the bottom up and the top down to finally get 100 percent of Level 3 and up NICUs in western Pennsylvania to accept TRMMB donor milk – the previous number had been zero. Statewide, that number went from under 50 percent to more than 75 percent.

Making it sustainable – to become a truly sustainable nonprofit, TRMMB had to increase its sales in order to lower costs and grow. That was where our friend and frequent collaborator DMMConsulting came in, working with TRMMB to make donor milk the standard of care in NICUs for infants with serious medical needs. With 51% of Pennsylvania babies born to mothers on Medicaid, we were successful in getting our state Department of Human Services to cover the cost of donor milk under the program, and we are now working with lawmakers to regulate all milk banks in Pennsylvania to ensure the same high standard of care TRMMB practices every day.

How is Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank Doing Today?

The milk bank is running on all cylinders. The number of new moms donating breast milk recently surpassed 535, providing 57,000 oz. of milk in 2016 (and on pace to double that amount this year) while reaching an estimated 700 infants. In addition to serving most of Pennsylvania’s NICU’s, TRMMB also provides milk in West Virginia and Maryland, and will soon add New Jersey to that list.

To provide further support to increase exclusive maternal breastfeeding rates, hospitals are now starting to expand use to include Mother Baby Units. Community based clinicians are also prescribing donor milk for outpatient infants with medical needs. Such uses would not even be possible without the ample reliable supply possible with an in-state milk bank.

Yet the single best measure of success is TRMMB’s ability to improve outcomes via its donor milk: one of Pennsylvania’s largest maternity hospitals reduced its cases of surgical necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) – the most serious form of a highly prevalent gastrointestinal emergency among preterm infants – from 11 to 1 in one short year. That reduction saved millions of dollars in health care costs, reduced hospital time, and most of all, saved the lives of Pennsylvania babies.