Human milk bank: the next revolution?

Publication: Deccan Herald

Date: 3rd Aug, 2016

Spokesperson: Dr.Kishore Kumar, Chairman and Neonatologist, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals

Mother’s milk. Made by nature to offer complete nutrition in a highly digestible form to a new born baby. It contains all the sugar, fat, protein and water that babies need for the first six months. It acts as the baby’s first vaccine, rich in antibodies that give protection from many infections.

Experts recommend that mothers should put their babies to the breast within the first hour after birth. The milk secreted during the two to three days after birth is called colostrum and carries in it the antibodies that build immunity against a number of infections.

The recommendation is that up to six months, babies should be fed only breast milk. And there are good reasons for this. Breast milk is a great natural source of all the energy and nutrients a baby needs. It provides the security and support that a new born requires to overcome the trauma of birth.

It creates the bonds that last a lifetime for mothers and their children. It is the foundation for a physically, emotionally and psychologically strong adult. When a mother breastfeeds her baby, her body releases a hormone (called oxytocin) which helps her feel calm and she is less likely to experience post-partum depression. Some studies have shown that mothers who breast feed also have a lower risk of breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and ovarian cancer.

Learning to breastfeed
But mothers have to learn to breastfeed. Breastfeeding does take a little extra effort, especially at the start. Most often, after giving birth, nurses and lactation experts at the hospital as well as close female relatives, are only too happy to help her learn to breastfeed.

A mother must learn to read her baby’s hunger cues, help her baby suckle well, find a comfortable position to breastfeed, and establish a feeding schedule that keeps the baby satisfied.

There are two ways to do this: either establish a regular feeding schedule or feed “on-demand” which is whenever the baby is hungry and cries. Talking to a paediatrician would help a mother to figure out what works best for her and the baby.

If her own milk is not enough or not available, then both UNICEF and WHO recommend using human milk from another source, and pasteurised donor human milk (PDHM) is her next best option.

Surplus milk
Human milk banks, like the name suggests, collect milk from women who voluntarily donate their surplus milk, and make it available to babies who need it, particularly high risk new born babies who are in the neonatal intensive care.

This is still a developing concept in India, though we have had few human milk banks functioning for some years in some parts of the country. These banks are usually situated in a neonatal care facility, or close to it, or in postnatal hospitals where there are large number of women who can donate their milk.

Nurses and lactation experts should encourage women with a good supply of milk to donate it to a human milk bank. A milk bank doesn’t need to be a large area. As long as it has a quiet, private area for the donor mother, the necessary equipment to pasteurise (heat treatment to remove any possible germs) the donated milk, a refrigerator and deep freezer to store the milk, and some other basic facilities.

In India, so many of our children die before their fifth birthday and one of the ways we are looking to reduce those numbers is by providing them breast milk at the time when it is most crucial to their survival. To many people, the idea of a human milk bank may sound like a very new idea. But in fact, it isn’t.

For centuries, when women were unable to feed their babies, they would rely on other relatives or neighbours who may have given birth recently and had an abundant supply of milk.

This concept of “wet nurses” is seen across cultures and milk banks are simply a modern adaptation of this age-old support that women have always given each other.

And who knows, in this day and age where everything is online, maybe we will soon see the day when human milk banks become such a commonplace thing that mothers will be able to order this milk for their babies by just downloading an app. I look forward to that day.

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