One teaspoon can save a baby’s life

Baby blood donors provide whole blood and platelets for specific patients, frequently on very short notice. Over 170 pediatric heart surgeries and other special procedures are conducted annually at MultiCare Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Health Center.


Blood collected for our Baby Blood Program is O negative and CMV negative. The need for O negative blood is understandable because it is the universal donor for red cells. Babies who are 4 months of age or younger require blood that is CMV negative because the consequences of such an infection may be severe or even fatal for them.


CMV means Cytomegalovirus (sy-toe- MEG-a- low-vy- rus). CMV is a flu-like virus that most people are exposed to at some time in their lives. After initial infection, which may cause few symptoms, CMV becomes latent, residing in cells without causing detectable damage or clinical illness.1 The Centers for Disease Control state that “nearly one in three children are already infected with CMV by age 5 years. Over half of adults by age 40 have been infected with CMV. Once CMV is in a person’s body, it stays there for life and can reactivate. A person can also be re-infected with a different strain (variety) of the virus”.


Most individuals with healthy immune systems will not have any signs or symptoms when they acquire CMV but if it is acquired by those with compromised immune systems, very low birth weight and premature infants, or infants infected in utero (in the womb) it can produce congenital complications at birth and sometimes long-term health problems.2 CMV negative blood is considered safer to transfuse to these vulnerable patient populations.3/4


Donor blood is routinely tested for CMV virus antibodies. If no antibodies are detected, the donor is considered CMV negative. Donors who were CMV negative in the past continue to be re-tested because they may have been exposed to the virus since their last donation.

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Baby Blood in the Real World

You have seen the phrase “One teaspoon of blood can save a baby’s life” around our Donor Centers. We asked the NICU manager at Tacoma General Hospital to tell us more about how donors help save babies’ lives.

“We save babies as young as 23 weeks gestation, or 17 weeks premature. These babies weigh around 500 grams, or 1.1 pounds.  Our tiny babies require frequent blood transfusions, mostly because of the frequent laboratory tests done to check their clinical status.  The blood we take for lab tests depletes the newborns of enough blood that they then need transfusions.

“On our smallest babies, we transfuse 10−15 milliliters of packed red blood cells. That is two to three teaspoons of blood. Those few teaspoons of blood give them the increase in hematocrit and total volume that keeps them strong enough to continue the fight for survival. While rare, we have seen transfusions for volumes as low as 6 milliliters, or about one teaspoon.”

Many babies need blood that is free of Cytomegalovirus, a virus that many people carry. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 50 to 80 percent of American adults will have the virus by the time they are 40. It generally does not affect healthy children and adults, but can cause serious issues for babies and people with weakened immune systems. Because CMV negative blood is rare, we have a special baby blood program to collect the blood to treat babies who need transfusions.  These special units must be collected within five days of the scheduled surgery.

Blood donors truly do save lives. Thank you for your dedication to donating blood and our community blood supply.