Health: `Donated breast milk saved my baby's life'

Breast milk can save the lives of premature babies. But if you can't provide it, you'd better hope that you live near one of a handful of milk banks.

Emily Rees weighed just over 1lb when she was born 12 weeks prematurely in 1997. She was as tall as a Barbie doll, with hands the size of adult thumbnails. Her head was no bigger than a golf ball. "It was like holding a baby bird," recalls her mother, 32-year-old Maria Rees, who lives in Hounslow.

At the time, she was the smallest newborn ever to survive. Hailed as a miracle baby, she received plenty of media attention. But one of the most significant factors contributing to her survival was never celebrated. She was fed exclusively on breast milk, much of it supplied by donors.

Breast milk is best, for all babies, but it is especially beneficial for low-birth-weight, premature infants. It can make the difference between life and death. "These babies," says Dr Tony Williams, a consultant paediatrician at St George's Hospital, London, "have severely under-developed guts, lungs and brains, because the most rapid period of growth takes place in the last few months of a normal pregnancy. It appears that human milk promotes development and growth in ways that we don't yet understand."

A recent study concluded that if all babies in the UK's neonatal units had access to human milk, 100 lives a year could be saved. "The death rate among formula-fed babies," adds Dr Williams, "is six-to-10-fold greater. Trials have shown that when fed human milk, babies are less prone to serious infections." These include septicaemia, meningitis, pneumonia and, the biggest killer, a disease of the gut called necrotising enterocolitis.

And yet there are just 13 milk banks in this country, mainly in the South- east, so many neonatal units are forced to rely on formula feeding. "It's an absolute scandal," says Gillian Weaver, vice-chair of the United Kingdom Association for Milk Banking. "It's like saying, `Oh, your baby was born in Cornwall and we don't have antibiotics there, so tough.' It's so unfair. And not just for the babies and their families. There are countless women who would love to donate - I should know, I get enough phone calls from them - but they just don't live near enough to the few milk banks we have."

The women who do manage to donate do so mainly for altruistic reasons. They may have previously had a premature baby, and want to give something back to the system. "But, says Ms Weaver, "any woman who is healthy, producing plenty of milk, is a non-smoker and will under-go a blood test, can become a donor."

The blood test is to screen for diseases such as Aids, syphilis and hepatitis. The discovery that HIV can be passed on through breast milk led to strict new government guidelines in 1989, heralding the decline of UK milk banks. But screening and pasteurisation ensure that there is now no risk of infection. "It appears," says Ms Weaver, "that the major obstacle nowadays is ignorance. I still meet paediatricians who say `milk banks no longer exist'. This just isn't true. But we do need more of them, particularly larger ones that can supply greater geographical areas."

"I wasn't worried about the HIV testing. I haven't led a racy life," says Alice Harlan, 22, from Hammersmith, who has donated milk for three months since the birth of her daughter Martha. "I'm a Quaker. It's important to me to do things for people in need. I had an easy pregnancy and birth and wanted to help women who had a less easy time."

Alice soon realised that she too could benefit. "I express 100ml a day. It takes five minutes. I keep half back and freeze it for my daughter. The great thing is that the milk bank tests each batch for bacteria and will tell me if there's anything wrong with it. When I start teacher-training college next week, I'll know that the milk I've stored for Martha is fine."

"I'm just so grateful to these women," says Maria Rees. "I just wish more women knew they could help. I expressed my own milk for Emily for six weeks. She was fed through tubes. But it's so difficult. I felt like a cow in a dairy. Instead of a guzzling baby there was just the swish of the machine while I gazed at Emily's photographs."

Like many women in her extremely stressful situation, she found that her own supply dried up. Other mothers are too ill to feed their babies. They may be recovering from surgery, or have cancer and be undergoing chemotherapy. Some have older children to care for, and live too far away from the neonatal unit. In a few sad cases, the baby's mother may have died.

Maria Rees urges women to donate milk, as she is convinced that it saved her daughter's life.

"The doctors worked so hard with Emily," she recalls. "At times, she was dying. They fought to bring her back and donor milk kept her going. Look at her now, a happy, cheeky, normal little girl. I could win the lottery, and it wouldn't make our lives any better."

WHY WE SHOULD INVEST IN MILK BANKS

Low birth-rate human milk-fed babies spend less time in intensive care than those fed formula.

Babies who are breast-fed for the first 15 weeks are half as likely to suffer respiratory illnesses as those given bottles.

Breast milk is being investigated as a possible treatment for cancer. Research has shown that a protein in the milk actually kills off lung cancer cells, while normal cells are unchanged.

The UK got its first milk bank in 1935 to help feed the first surviving set of quadruplets.

Studies suggest that breast-fed babies go on to perform better at school.

In Britain, 66 per cent of infants are breast-fed at birth.

In 1986 there were 70 milk banks in the UK. Now there are just 13.

For more information send a SAE to UKAMB, Queen Charlotte's & Chelsea Hospital, Goldhawk Rd, London W6 0XG; www.science-network.com/ukam/

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices