Milk bank can save tiny lives

Premature baby web

Claire Thain examines the development of Scotland's nationwide milk bank, which supports families throughout the country

16th May 2018 by Gareth Jones 0 Comments

This Saturday (May 19) is World Human Milk Donation Day, which celebrates the contribution that breastmilk feeding mums make to other mothers and their babies. 

Human milk banks collect, store, process and distribute donated breast milk and Scotland has a nationwide service hosted by NHS Glasgow and Clyde, covering all territorial health boards throughout the country. The One Milk Bank for Scotland provides screened, pasteurised donor breast milk to babies who have no or limited access to their own mother’s milk. Often these babies are born prematurely.

Breastmilk can be described as liquid gold for the numerous health benefits it provides to infants. It offers premature babies, who are often born with immature intestines and immune systems, protection against life threatening conditions such as neonatal sepsis (a bacterial blood stream infection) and necrotising enterocolitis (a potentially fatal gut infection). 

Pic by Furious Ferret Photography

Pic by Furious Ferret Photography

Breast milk from a baby’s own mother is always the best option.  However, it can be difficult for mothers of premature babies to produce enough of their own breast milk. 

Often the mothers’ bodies are not prepared for the birth and the stress of their baby being in neonatal intensive care can exacerbate the situation making it hard to produce milk. In these cases, donated human milk is considered the next best alternative.

Scotland’s milk bank has a team of 10 volunteer drivers who travel the length and breadth of the country collecting frozen donor milk and transporting it to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow for processing.  Following screening tests and pasteurisation, the milk is redistributed throughout Scotland, where it is used to feed fragile premature infants in Scotland’s 15 neonatal intensive care units.

Scotland’s milk bank was established in 1978 and at that time it operated from a single fridge in Glasgow. This year, the milk bank celebrates its 40th anniversary and its fifth anniversary since it started operating in its current form. The milk bank is run by just three part-time workers.

Rigorous blood screening is carried out on all prospective donors before their milk can be processed, using the same procedures used for blood donations. Blood is tested for diseases that could be transmitted through the milk, such as HIV, hepatitis B and C and syphilis. These tests cost the NHS around £100 per person, so it is important for donors to be fully committed when they register.  Once a donor has expressed ten bottles of frozen milk, collection can be arranged.

Milk donation isn’t just about the protection it offers to vulnerable babies, it also supports the mums of premature infants and takes the pressure off them.

As a donor, you are not just providing milk for vulnerable babies, you are also sending a message of love and support to another mother. 

To become a donor, your baby should be less than six months old when you make your first donation. The bank can also take stored milk which is less than 90 days old.  Donors must be in good health, non-smokers and live in non-smoking households and cannot have had a tattoo within the last year. 

If you would like to find out more about donation, then please visit the One Milk Bank website.

Claire Thain is a community activist