Why doesn't Australia have more breast milk banks?

Premature babies can rely on donated milk.
Premature babies can rely on donated milk. Photo: Getty Images

After serious complications, Chloe's* baby was born prematurely. Chloe became very unwell and was confined to intensive care while her baby boy, Ollie*, was cared for in the neonatal ward.

Ollie's condition was touch and go, and there was a real chance he wouldn't make it. It was a terrifying and difficult time for Chloe's partner and family. During his time in hospital, as Chloe recovered from the birth and complications, baby Ollie was tube fed donor breast milk.

'Liquid gold' in storage at the Mercy Hospital's milk bank in Melbourne.
'Liquid gold' in storage at the Mercy Hospital's milk bank in Melbourne. Photo: Justin McManus

As the days went by, with around-the-clock support, Ollie grew stronger. Doctors told Chloe the donated milk had made a big difference.

"I will be eternally grateful to the women who donated their milk when I couldn't feed my baby," Chloe says. "It's such an important thing for premmie babies, especially – it made all the difference."

Neonatologist Gillian Opie, from the Mercy Hospital for Women, says that milk banks – like the one that helped get milk to baby Ollie – play a critical role in providing nutrient rich food for babies.

"Breast milk provides essential supportive immune factors and appropriate nutrition specifically designed for human babies," she says. "It is well known that providing breast milk to babies reduces their susceptibility to infections and allergy."

"Research indicates that where the mother's own breast milk supply is insufficient, pasteurised donor breast milk is an effective and acceptable option."

Dr Opie notes that premature babies can have difficulty tolerating feeds, so breast milk, which is easy to digest and absorb, is ideal. When mothers aren't able to produce milk or are unable to express enough, donor milk is the next best thing.

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Australia has only four milk banks which run out of hospital's neonatal intensive care units: the Mercy Health Breastmilk Bank in Victoria, King Edward Memorial Hospital's PREM Bank in Western Australia, RBWH Milk Bank in Queensland, and Sydney's RPA hospital.

So when there's no question that milk banks are important, why don't we have more of them in Australia?

According to Dr Opie, there are a number of reasons. "Breast milk banks are costly to establish and run. They are not funded by health departments, so philanthropic monies must be sourced to provide the service," she explains.

Another issue lies in the complex policy that regulates the use of milk banks. While there are international guidelines in place, there are many aspects of national and state law that make the establishment of new milk banks very challenging, notably the Human Tissue Act and Food Safety Act.

"Currently the federal government would prefer to focus on supporting breastfeeding rather than direct resources to establishing Australian guidelines for the operation of breast milk banks," notes Dr Opie.

In addition to this, the thorough process that donors need to undertake before donating milk is costly and time consuming. "Donors must undergo rigorous lifestyle screening and then a series of blood tests – funded by the breast milk bank – before they can be accepted," Dr Opie explains.

And that's all before the complicated process of pasteurising and storing the donated milk begins: "Processing involves pasteurising the milk at 62.5 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes, then rapidly chilling before freezing for further storage. Every batch is tested before and after pasteurisation."

Another group, Mother's Milk Bank, screens and pasteurises donated milk before passing it on to grateful families. Australia's first community run milk bank, it runs on donated funds and is staffed by volunteers; it's based in NSW's Tweed Heads and services the northern New South Wales and southeast Queensland area, including Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

But formal milk banks are not the only route for families who are looking for donor milk. Charlene turned to an informal milk sharing community when she needed to source more milk for her baby, who had a severe tongue-tie. "I found donors through a Facebook group called 'Human milk 4 human babies' and connected with mothers in my area who had milk to donate," she explains.

Of course milk shared through the Facebook group doesn't go through the same rigorous screening that breast milk banks use, but Charlene says this wasn't a concern for her.

"Mums were always very open about their health so it wasn't something that worried me," she explains. "My husband and I were comfortable with the decision we made."

Charlene does advise mothers interested in sourcing donor milk informally to ask lots of questions. "I think it is important to ask the donor mum questions regarding their general health, medication, diet and exercise," she says.

Like Chloe, Charlene says that she will always be grateful to the women who donated their milk.

"They've given our daughter the best start to life," she says. "It's a beautiful thing – keep sharing that liquid gold!"

*Names have been changed 

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