The babies who bank on breast milk donations


A campaign to raise funds to open the only charitable donor breast milk bank in London and the south-east launched this week - in a move that will potentially save the lives of thousands of premature babies.

Hearts Milk Bank was set up by Natalie Shenker, a former paediatric doctor, and Gillian Weaver, a milk banking specialist.

The pair were "frustrated and desperate" at the lack of awareness and accessibility of breast milk donation in the NHS. The banks collect donated milk which is used to feed premature babies whose mothers cannot produce their own milk.

Until now, neo-natal units have been forced to call milk banks located many miles away in the hope they might have available supplies. In the meantime, Dr Shenker explained, babies in need grow more at risk of disease.

She said: "We decided to do something that would solve the problem of the postcode lottery and the lack of equitable access in a developed-world country to something as fundamentally simple as donating breast milk. There is a specific problem in London."

Dr Shenker wants to dispel myths about donating milk. She explained: "This is medical, it is like providing a medicine. If you had an accident and needed a blood transfusion, you would expect blood to be provided, not some substitute.

"Parents should be aware this service is out there. We find once it is explained, take-up rates are very good. There is unfortunately a 'yuck factor' around breast milk, but we want to bust myths."

Dr Shenker was unaware of milk donation until four years ago, when she found her freezer full of milk she had expressed for her baby, but no longer needed. Her minister, Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, then of West London Synagogue, suggested she donate it.

"Now we want to get the word out," Dr Shenker said. "We know less than one per cent of the general public have even heard about a milk bank.

"Hopefully by January we will be in the position where we can start collecting and pasteurising donations."

Naomi Joffe, a member of New North London Synagogue in Finchley, started donating 11 years ago after the birth of her second child.

She said: "It's even simpler now. You just do a quick questionnaire, have a blood test and then they give you containers to store it in your freezer, and then pick it up.

"Human milk is better for a human baby than processed cow's milk, particularly these sick and vulnerable babies - their guts are so fragile. So few mothers know about it. The more access, the better."

More than 70,000 premature babies are born every year, with 10 per cent at a very low birth weight. The vast majority of their mothers have difficulties producing breast milk, due partly to shock.

These babies carry the risk of contracting necrotising entercolitis, a disease that kills four in 10 affected. If fed breast milk, the risks of catching it and dying from it, are radically reduced.

It is hoped that Hearts Milk Bank will operate like a blood transfusion service, beginning with the process of screening and interviewing potential donors and taking blood tests.

The milk will then be picked up by volunteer motorcyclists who bring it to the bank, where it is then microbiologically checked, pasteurised, heat treated, and checked again. It will then be sent to all neo-natal units in the area.

The online fundraising campaign aims to raise the £50,000 needed to afford the medical equipment used to check and pasteurise the samples. More than £3,000 had been donated by Wednesday.

While the bank already has staff and premises at the University of Hertfordshire, the organisers cannot afford vital instruments including pasteurisers and medical-grade refrigerators.

To make a contribution to the Hearts Milk Bank fundraising campaign, visit

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