The Milk Bank’s Origin Story

Naomi Bar Yam - the milk bank's origin story

Naomi Bar-Yam, Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast Founder and Executive Director from 2008 – 2020.

How it began – an origin story . . .

“It doesn’t get better than saving babies lives,” explains Naomi regarding the origin of Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast.  

Naomi, mother of four, had two children who needed special care at birth. Her third child was born in Israel and was small for his gestational age, weighing 4.5lbs at birth. Her youngest child was born 6 weeks early in the Boston area and was also born weighing just 4.5lbs. This deeply personal experience of bringing medically fragile babies into the world was the origin of Naomi’s commitment to helping as many families as possible. Our own struggles are often what give us the deepest well of empathy for others experiencing similar challenges . . .

The power of “we” . . .

Several years later, when advocating for health care needs of family members, Naomi realized that Boston, arguably a medical capital of the world, didn’t have a milk bank. Indeed, in 2006 when Naomi began her personal milk bank journey, the closest milk bank was in Columbus, Ohio.

Naomi reached out to various lactation specialist colleagues and set up a meeting to discuss the lack of a milk bank in the area. Her intention was to brainstorm, to see how others might want to remedy this issue. She never imagined that this initial conversation would lead her to personally found the milk bank. And yet, this first informal meeting in her living room with a small number of dedicated advocates, many of whom are still connected to the milk bank, set Naomi on the path of starting what is today, Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast.

Step by step, ounce by ounce . . .

Naomi is quick to point out how many people helped along the way. This list includes nurses, doctors, lactation specialists, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, all of whom with key skills in areas such as law, nonprofit management and logistics. Milk bank directors from around the country shared their practices and offered support, as did the accreditation organization Human Milk Banking of North America. The list goes on.

The milk bank grew first step by step and then by leaps and bounds. Initially, we distributed donor milk that had been screened and pasteurized by the Ohio milk bank. Meanwhile, Naomi introduced the medical community to the importance of donor milk and built relationships with local hospitals.

Science plays catch up . . .

In the early days, the use of donor milk was less familiar. Naomi had to overcome a lot of resistance from doctors. Some of it was rooted in discomfort with the decidedly personal aspect of giving a baby milk from another mother. But Naomi also recognized the more legitimate reluctance stemming from unfamiliarity with the science and research that proves that pasteurized donor milk is safe and promotes better health outcomes. Naomi learned as she went and so did the medical community.

All the while, the body of scientific research demonstrating the critical importance of donor milk for medically fragile babies and the superior safety record of donor milk grew along with it. Before she knew it, the milk bank was able to start screening our own milk donors and pasteurizing in our own lab to keep up with the growing numbers of hospitals and medical facilities relying on us.

From origin to legacy . . .

Reflecting on her years leading the milk bank before stepping down in 2020, Naomi is proud of the service she created and the community she built. She explains,

The milk bank provides so many people with the opportunity to give back in ways that work for them. It’s a place where people band together. A place where countless individuals can say, ‘This is my strength and I’m going to use it for babies.’ People give milk, they give money, they volunteer their time and/or guidance as Board members or advisors, they become employees and spend their days immersed in the mission and ensuring that babies get safe donor milk. Each of them takes a little bit of the milk bank home with them when they leave at the end of the day and at the end of their tenure with the milk bank. And that’s another way we spread the word and raise awareness. All those people in this circle of giving.”

A huge, heartfelt, milk bank thank you to Naomi Bar Yam, our founder. Her persistence, commitment, and understanding of the needs of families and fragile babies has changed the course of thousands of infants’ lives. Her legacy continues today.

Key Supporters

Maternal Healthy Equity Grant Recipient logo
Yale Appliance logo
Davis Family Foundation logo
Aria Covey Foundation logo
Massachusetts Foundation logo