SAN DIEGO — Maria Sturchler spends much of her time as a mother pumping breast milk.

“It does take a lot of time, I’ll be honest. I work full time, I have two little kids, a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old, and I’m a physician,” she said. “I have to carve out time, 20-30 minutes several times a day. When you add up the hours connected to a pump in the course of your babies’ life, it’s a lot of time.”

Sturchler pumps not only for her own children, but for countless others around Southern California. She has donated hundreds of ounces of her own breast milk to the University of California Health Milk Bank, the only nonprofit human milk bank in Southern California.

The donations are personal to Sturchler because she’s gone through the struggle of producing enough milk.

“I get asked by a lot of people if, like, ‘How much could you sell your milk for?’ I don’t know, I’m sure a lot, but that’s not the point of it. The first time with my first baby, I barely had enough to feed her and it was a struggle just to get enough milk for her out of my body. And this time I’m just so fortunate I have so much extra.”

Dr. Lisa Stellwagen is a pediatrician and the executive director for the UC Health Milk Bank. She said donated human milk is critical for feeding sick or premature infants when parents don’t have a sufficient milk supply for their baby’s nutritional needs.

“These babies can be as small as 1 pound or 2 pounds,” Stellwagen said. “And what we feed them in the first weeks of life can really impact their growth.”

Stellwagen said hundreds of the tiniest premature babies in California hospitals develop an often-fatal bowel disease known as necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC. Nobody knows for sure what causes it, but a common factor most times is the use of formula to feed these low-birth-weight babies because the mother’s breast milk is not available. Stellwagen believes replacing formula with pasteurized breast milk could be a positive step in reducing NEC cases.

The milk bank accepts donated frozen mother’s milk and processes it to provide a safe pasteurized human milk product for hospitalized and fragile children. Mothers complete an intense screening process and are carefully tested before donation; the milk is also tested and processed.

Unlike for-profit milk banks that pay breastfeeding women for their milk, nonprofit banks collect only donated milk. These nonprofit banks’ primary goal is to provide milk products to all NICU patients in need, particularly in underserved communities.

Stellwagen hopes more hospitals realize how powerful the milk of mothers can be and they’ll use it to help more babies.

“Having suboptimal nutrition can impact the child’s health for years to come and we need to do the best we can for those babies,” she said.

The UC Health Milk Bank provides milk to NICU babies in Southern California, and its supply will be available to newborns at all UC academic health centers. As part of an academic health system, families at UC hospitals will have access to milk donation and expert advice. Families outside of the health system can also buy supplemental milk for $5/ounce — A high price tag because of the rigorous testing necessary to ensure a safe product.

Sturchler will keep donating as long as she can and hopes to inspire other mothers to join their cause.

“It’s an honor, and it’s a gift that I have that I’m able to make extra and so what better than sharing it with other babies,” she said.  

To become a human milk donor or purchase breast milk, visit the UC Health Milk Bank website.