babies play in ball pit

They Care: Three generations of one family team up to provide milk for babies in need

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (March 4, 2024) – A Hopewell mom is one of more than 500 donors to the Mid-Atlantic Milk Bank.

When Emily DeMaiolo found herself pregnant with high-risk twins, she got advice from one of the best sources she knew: her mom, a longtime nurse practitioner in local neonatal intensive care units.

One thing that her mother stressed was the importance of breast milk for high-risk babies.

“I explained to her that it decreases the complications with the premature babies, that it helps with their immunity and their gut health,” said Lisa Haslett, who has worked as a NICU nurse at various hospitals in the region since 1994.

She also told her that some mothers use donated breast milk as a bridge until their own milk comes in, which is often delayed for mothers of premature babies.

DeMaiolo, 26, of Hopewell, spent much of her pregnancy visiting doctors. Because her twins shared a placenta, they were at risk for a condition called twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome, where one twin receives more blood flow than the other in utero, putting them both at risk. She also had a velamentous cord insertion, in which the umbilical cord attaches to the placenta incorrectly, which increases the chances that the babies would be premature or underweight.

DeMaiolo tried to prepare for what her babies might need, and learned that the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank, in the Strip District, could provide donated breast milk if she needed it.

As it turned out, DeMaiolo’s pregnancy went smoothly. The identical twin girls — Senna and Aurora — stayed in utero long enough that she got to choose their birthday: March 23, 2023 (or 3/23/23). They were healthy enough at birth to avoid the NICU entirely. And aside from just a few hours in the hospital, she was able to feed them exclusively with breast milk.

She produced so much milk, in fact, that at one point, she had 2,000 ounces stored in a freezer in her garage.

Though her situation had gone well, she remembered the anxiety that she felt during pregnancy about possibly needing milk.

“I had plenty of milk left over,” she said. “If there is a baby out there that needs donor milk, I would really love to be able to say that I did that.”

She called the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank, which takes donated milk and pasteurizes it for use in hospitals and for outpatient babies with medical needs.

Donor milk chart

Before making an initial donation, DeMaiolo did a phone survey and a blood test to check that her milk was safe for other babies to use.

When she was ready to donate, the milk bank offered her the option of sending the milk in or coming to the location in the Strip District to drop it off in person and get a tour. And so on Jan. 24, three generations of her family — Haslett, DeMaiolo, Senna and Aurora — came to drop off the first donation.

Denise O’Connor, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank, was there to meet them.

“We would not be able to have a milk bank without the donors,” said O’Connor. “They make this milk bank possible and they are our heroes. It takes an entire community to make sure that a milk bank is available to the sickest babies.”

mom with babies
Following the delivery of twins Aurora and Senna, Emily DeMaiolo began donating her extra breast milk. (Sebastian Foltz/Post-Gazette)

DeMaiolo is one of more than 500 donors that the milk bank expects to need this year to fill the expected demand for about 35,000 ounces of milk per month at the 60 different hospitals that it serves. Donor milk is used for premature babies, babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome and increasingly for healthy babies as a bridge until their mother is able to breastfeed.

DeMaiolo is still giving breast milk to her daughters, and still waking up in the middle of the night to pump. Each day, she sets aside four or five ounces of what she’s pumped for the milk bank, and plans to make “a big, big donation” for their first birthday.

Even one ounce of donor milk can be three meals for a tiny premature baby, said O’Connor. “What people don’t understand is how much impact their donation can make,” she said. “For a lot of people, it’s just sitting in their freezer.”

And, like DeMaiolo, who plans to start nursing school in the fall, it is not uncommon for those donors to be health care workers.

“We’ve had lots of NICU nurses themselves, we’ve had neonatologists, we’ve had so many physicians and so many nurses because they see it firsthand,” said O’Connor.

twins with tees
Twins Senna and Aurora DeMaiolo pose in the "one (drop) for me, one for the NICU" T-shirts they received after mother Emily DeMaiolo donated breast milk to the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank. (Courtesy Emily DeMaiolo)

Shortly after the trip to the milk bank and the tour, Haslett went to work a shift in the NICU at AHN St. Vincent. While there, she saw a shipment of donor milk arrive at the hospital.

“I was telling the girls, that might be my daughter’s milk coming in,” she said. “I’m very proud of her.”

In her years working in NICUs, Haslett has seen firsthand the impact of using donor milk.

One of the leading causes of death for premature babies is a stomach condition called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which is 80% less likely to occur in babies exclusively fed human milk.

Since Pittsburgh-area hospitals started using donor milk about eight years ago, Haslett has personally noticed a drop in babies with NEC. One national study published last month found that 9% of extremely premature formula-fed babies studied developed NEC, versus 4.2% of similar babies fed donor milk.

“This grandma has seen firsthand what donor milk can do,” said O’Connor. “It’s tough breastfeeding one baby, much less two, and she really encouraged her daughter when she had more to spare. It’s a really beautiful volunteer story.”

To become a donor: Call 412-281-4400 or visit

Read the full story here.