According to the South African Breastmilk Reserve, 8 in 100 babies are born prematurely in South Africa, and of those, 11 000 babies die from preventable infections and complications every year.
Premature babies who weigh between 500 grams and 1.8 kilograms often need much assistance to breathe and feed. Because they are underdeveloped at this stage, they are not always ready to digest formula milk, making breastmilk their only lifeline.
Just 50ml of breastmilk can feed a premature baby of under 1kg for a full 24 hours, but very often the babies’ mothers are unable to supply the required amount. This can be due to health issues or medical complications, or even a lack of information and resources.
Some mothers are unable to afford to travel back and forth to hospital after they have been discharged, while prem babies can spend weeks, even months, in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
This is where donor breastmilk comes to the rescue.
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Mom Marelize knows better than most what these donations can mean to premature babies. Earlier this year she shared her story on Facebook. Suffering an incredibly difficult pregnancy, Marelize breathed a sigh of relief at 26 weeks, the point when a baby is viable for survival outside the womb. Just two weeks later, their baby girl was born by emergency c-section after 12 hours of labour.
“I got to touch my cheek against her face for exactly 3 seconds before they ran her out of theatre to place her on the CPAP and other machines, including a central line through her umbilical cord that would feed her until my milk came in,” Marelize wrote.
Despite her best efforts, Marelize was unable to express enough for her baby. “Having a baby weighing 960g is scary, not being able to feed them... that is HELL,” she recalled.
Relief came in the form of donor milk from Milk Matters. “I have no idea who the mom was that donated precious breastmilk, but I want to thank you. You saved a baby girl's life. She had lost 160g by the time she got your milk. You spent precious hours and resources to save a baby you would never know.
“If you are a donor of milk, I want to thank you. From the moment a baby receives milk, they receive a fighting chance at life.”
- Also see: Donate breastmilk and save lives!
We spoke to Jenny Wright, CEO of Milk Matters in Cape Town, to find out more about how donor breast milk saves lives, and how mothers can become donors.
Can I donate?
“There are still so many mothers who have more breastmilk than their own baby can use,” she told us, “and are throwing it away, unaware that they could be donating it to a milk bank and saving babies' lives.”
Donating breastmilk is possible for most moms, not just those with a particularly abundant supply, as these prem babies need so little to survive. Breastmilk is made on a supply and demand basis – the more milk is pumped from the breast, the more milk is produced, so a mother can feed her baby and donate milk without depriving her own baby.
Do I get paid for the milk?
Breastmilk may not be bought or sold as it is a human tissue, and donors are not paid for their efforts. Milk banks may charge a Milk Processing Fee to the hospitals, based on cost recovery, in order to make it viable to run a milk bank. But like Milk Matters, many charge a fee that is substantially less than full cost recovery, and rely on public support and charity to keep running.
Adoptive mom Amy shared her experience, saying it's the greatest gift.
“I heard that my son received donor milk for 3 months while he was in hospital due to a weakened immune system. I don't know who you all are, nor how to thank you. I know it saved his life as I've heard that from his doctors. And due to that, it saved mine too. I am eternally grateful. You may not be getting anything back in return but I got my son. And there is no greater gift. He is the light of my life and in perfect health.”
Where do I donate the milk?
Milk Matters and other milk banks around the country make donating breastmilk as easy and convenient as possible, supplying donor mothers with sterile containers and having many depots where mothers can, once screened and registered, drop off donations of frozen breastmilk and collect packs of sterile containers.
How much is enough?
Jenny shared several stories of how the littlest of donor milk saved lives, including that of Baby A born at 27 weeks, weighing 625g. “At first his mom did not have the tiny volumes of milk he needed, and donor milk was needed to give the mom time to build her supply. She did this so successfully that she in turn donated milk, paying forward the gift she and her baby son had been given.”
She also mentioned Baby T, who started out getting just 7ml per day, a tiny amount to most breastfeeding moms, but a life-saving difference to this family. “Baby T was born at 24 weeks and weighed only 620g. His mom was very ill and unable to provide breastmilk in the early days, so donor milk was the lifeline that saved this baby.
“I do not know of a milk bank in the country that has more milk than they need,” Jenny told us. “We all need more than we get in. Even if you have just 50ml a day to spare, that is enough to save a life. And please call us before throwing out your freezer stash!”
If you are able to donate breast milk visit:
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