Truly the milk of human kindness

What happens if a mother is unable to feed her baby with her own milk, or cannot produce enough? A milk bank fills the gap

Three years ago, Fortis La Femme, Delhi’s specialised hospital for women and newborns entered into a collaboration with the Breast Milk Foundation (BMF), a non-profit, to set up the first pasteurised human milk bank, ‘Amaara’ in Delhi-NCR. Its first priority is to provide safe, hygienic to newborns whose mothers are unable to breastfeed. In these three years, the Amaara Milk Bank has been able to help 7,156 babies in neo-natal intensive care units (NICUs).

Surprised to hear about milk banks? Globally, human milk banking is a common practice though in India, it is still a new phenomenon. According to Dr Raghuram Mallaiah, Director and HoD, Neonatology at Fortis La Femme: “Breast milk is the best nutritional food source for premature and low birth weight infants and should be available to babies deprived of their mother’s milk. WHO and UNICEF strongly recommend that to reduce infant mortality, breast milk from own mother or a healthy donor mother is the best possible way.”

The milk so obtained has to be pasteurised, and the givers have to volunteer. The bank created a strong volunteer base of 190 donors. Not just in Fortis, the milk bank has provided the milk to 38 hospitals across Delhi/NCR – wherever babies are admitted in the NICU and are critically in need of breast milk.

This initiative is important in a country like India, which has one of the largest number of low birth weight babies in the world, with significant mortality and morbidity rates. According to IndiaSpend Report 2016, as many as 7 lakh newborns die in India each year—29 per 1,000 births—due to low birth weight and preterm deliveries. Today, there are 60-plus human milk banks in India, in both public and private hospitals. This number has risen from 14 in 2014 to 30 in 2016.

Everyone knows that breast milk is best for the baby, and the government’s healthcare campaigns drive home the message. It is only a small percentage of mothers who face lactation failure. Sometimes they feel their supply is insufficient for their babies – for that a number of home remedies are available.

However, there may be some intractable problems, such as insufficient glandular tissue (hypoplastic breasts), polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), hypothyroidism, radiation treatment for breast cancer or breast reduction surgery. Here a milk bank comes as a life-saver. In case the mother’s supply is low, then supplementary milk can be taken from a bank and/or infant formula can be used.

The process to apply as a donor is very simple — register, get a physical check- up and a general background check. The next steps for the selected mothers is to express the milk and store it in their home refrigerators, to be collected by the milk bank staff. You will be doing a social service, since you could save a baby’s life. A 2016 UNICEF-WHO report on Nurturing the Health and Wealth Of Nations: The Investment Case For Breastfeeding[i] notes that India, along with Indonesia, China, Mexico and Nigeria, accounts for more than 236,000 child deaths every year due to inadequate breastfeeding

Dr Anita Sharma, who is Fortis LaFemme’s lactation consultant, is clear that milk banks are a boon for mothers who can’t breastfeed. She says, “Mother’s milk is a baby’s birthright. The content and nutrients of mother’s milk can’t be replaced by any formula milk in the world.”

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