Like the babies it will benefit, Victoria's first breast milk bank will start small and grow slowly.
Head of the bank, neonatal paediatrician Dr Gillian Opie, said its opening yesterday will benefit hundreds of the tiniest and sickest infants born at Mercy Hospital for Women, Heidelberg.
She said breast milk was better for the health and development of these vulnerable babies, and protected them against a gastrointestinal illness, necrotising enterocolitis, to which they were susceptible.
''Given the priceless value of this resource only the most premature infants - those born before 32 weeks and with a birth weight less then 1500 grams - will be offered [the] pasteurised milk,'' she said.
''In the initial stages it can only be provided by mothers [who have given birth] at Mercy, for mothers in our intensive and special care nursery.
''But it is our hope that in the future we'll be able to extend this service to other small and sick babies in other intensive care nurseries across Victoria.''
Mothers of babies under the age of six months will be able to donate surplus milk, which will be screened, pasteurised and stored for up to three months before being thawed for its recipients.
Dr Opie said she expected to start recruiting donors this week, and had spoken informally with many mothers in the hospital who had indicated their willingness to donate.
''We talk a lot about women struggling [to breastfeed] but oversupply can be just as much of a difficulty and for those women to be able to express their milk and have it used is fantastic,'' she said.
''The babies we are going to be helping are very small and don't need a large volume of milk. And we are aiming to supplement mother's milk where possible, not replace it.''
The hospital raised the $300,000 needed to establish the bank and for its continuing running costs.
Melissa Italia, whose twins Jake and Chloe were born at 29 weeks on January 9, hailed the bank as a great initiative that could have helped supplement her own breast milk. ''Using breast milk over formula is a great start for babies. It's something we would definitely look at taking if we could,'' she said.