Government hospitals store breast milk for newborns whose mothers can’t feed them
You have heard of banks, blood banks, investment banks, eye banks and even sperm banks, but a milk bank? In Mumbai’s government hospitals, a unique service encourages nursing mothers to donate breast milk for newborns whose mothers cannot breastfeed them.
The human milk bank concept was initiated at Lokmanya Tilak General Hospital by one Dr Armanda Fernandes over 15 years ago. She noticed that a majority of lactating mothers have excess milk which they often express (through breast pumps or traditional methods) and throw away. Dr Fernandes encouraged them to give it to the ward nurse, who would deep freeze and preserve it.
“If milk is not expressed by a nursing mother, it will cause chest congestion and hardening of the breasts. This will lead to other complications. The bank has been a great help for such women who feel guilty about throwing away breast milk,” says Reshma Sidhaye, lactation counsellor.
Subsequently, the idea was replicated by KEM Hospital, the Sir JJ Group of Hospitals and the women’s speciality hospitals Cama and Albess. Interestingly, private hospitals, despite extensive campaigns, have found it difficult to set up a similar facility due to the lack of voluntary donors.
“Mother’s milk provides immunisation to the infant to fight ailments. Human milk banks are made available in situations where the biological mother cannot feed the infant,” says Dr Ashok Anand, unit in-charge, gynaecology and obstetrics, Sir JJ Group of Hospitals.
Milk is sourced from the bank if a new mother has inadequate lactation, is an HIV+, Hepatitis B or syphilis patient, or is on high medication for any illness.
There is no limit to the number of times a new mother can make donations. She can even do it after every feed. The milk is collected using breast pumps and emptied into sterile containers. A 5 ml sample is sent for bacteria test and the remaining is pasteurised up to 56 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes. The essential proteins are not lost in this heating, but harmful bacteria are killed.
The sample is preserved in the freezer in steel containers. It can be stored up to three months. Neonatal intensive care units and premature infants are the most frequent recipients of the milk.
Donors are wholehearted in giving their milk. “It is an emotional bond for them. They believe that they should not refuse to help another child as it may negatively impact their own infant,” said Sayali Dhar, childbirth counsellor. “The illiterate are more willing and have no inhibitions about donating, but it is the opposite with the educated class. They often store it but for the exclusive use of their own infant.”
Perhaps the milk of human kindness runs deeper among the poor.