POSTED: Saturday, September 22, 2012 - 4:00pm
UPDATED: Saturday, September 22, 2012 - 4:04pm
NBC NATIONAL NEWS — Pierce Tumpey is a blonde-haired toddler who giggles with delight over bubbles, bells, and breast milk.
His mom, Abbigail, says breastfeeding wasn't easy at first.
"It's one of the most difficult things that I've ever done," she said.
She kept at it because new scientific research shows it's even better for babies than previously suspected.
Katherine Shealy works for education and outreach at the Centers for Disease Control and is considered their breastfeeding expert.
"The science that we have now is so compelling and so irrefutable," she says
She points to some of the strongest evidence: breastfed babies are 250% less likely to be hospitalized with a severe respiratory infection, 56% less likely to suffer from SIDS, and 32% less likely to be obese later in life.
"The way that that works is most likely the way that the breast milk works in the gastrointestinal system, in the gut. It turns out the vast majority of your immune system is developed from your gut," she says.
Little Pierce isn't the only one drinking Abbigail's breast milk.
She's part of a growing trend: donating to milk banks.
"I never intended to be a donor. I was just saving for a rainy day," she says. "But when my son was about seven months old, I looked in the freezer and there was about 1,000 ounces of breast milk in there." A friend told her she should donate it. "And my first reaction was: Who in the world would want my breast milk?!"
It turns out the demand far outweighs supplies for healthy human breast milk.
Tumpey went through the Human Milk Banking Association of North America and donated to a program out of Wake Forrest, North Carolina.
Before she could donate more than 600 ounces of her milk, she had to undergo extensive screening that included an interview, blood test, releases from her doctor, and a log of the time the milk was dated.
It's then pasteurized and tested one more time before it's given to babies in intensive care units in hospitals around the Southeast.
HMBANA said they processed 2.18 million ounces of milk in 2009.
There's also growth in less official milk sharing sites.
Georgia's chapter of Human Milk 4 Human Babies allows moms in need to hook up with donating moms on their Facebook page.
Since the informal group doesn't undergo extensive medical testing, the national site says they "respect the right of families to make informed choices" concerning possible risks.