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In this occasional series, we highlight policy ideas and initiatives that can help make Ireland a more properly pro-life place; making pregnancy and parenthood easier and supporting women and babies.

Note: for what it’s worth, this blog was entirely written while the author was breastfeeding.

One of the most successful cross-border initiatives in Ireland is virtually unheard of. It’s Ireland’s Human Milk Bank. Located in Enniskillen, the Milk Bank receives and processes donations of human breastmilk from all over the island of Ireland. The milk is pasteurised and then distributed to the maternity units in hospitals North and South, to be given to premature and sick babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs).

Why is this such an important service? Well, while infant formula, usually made from processed cow’s milk, is a wonderful, necessary product and provides safe and adequate nutrition for most babies, there are risks to formula usage. For a healthy, full-term baby, these risks primarily manifest as an increased likelihood of ear infections or tummy upsets. However, for the smallest and sickest babies, the risks of formula feeding are far higher – a gastro infection is far more serious in a premature baby than a full-term baby. For this reason, human breastmilk, the biologically normal food for human babies, is very important.

The mothers of babies in the NICU are not always in a position to provide their babies with any or all of the milk their babies require. Many of them have had a c-section, which can delay milk production beginning. Furthermore, the best way to stimulate milk supply is to have a baby feed at the breast, but babies in the NICU are often too small or too weak to breastfeed. It’s much harder to stimulate breastmilk production with a pump than a baby (although many people still manage to do so). Finally there are reasons a woman may not be able to pump for her baby – she may still be recovering from the birth, she may be on medication that contraindicates breastfeeding or may simply prefer not to pump. For all these reasons, an extra supply of milk is required.

I first became aware of the Milk Bank when I had my daughter in 2016, but in April 2019 I learned just how important it was. I attended a screening of the film Tigers, a film that detailed marketing of breastmilk substitutes in Pakistan as described by a former Nestlé employee. (By the way, the film is brilliant: if you get a chance to see it you should). After the screening there was a panel discussion on breastfeeding. Dr Roy K. Philips, a consultant neonatologist at University Maternity Hospital Limerick (UMHL), was on the panel. Dr Philips described a condition called Necrotising Enterocolitis (NEC), a serious condition that affects premature babies and babies with a very low birthweight. Dr Philips pioneered a new policy in UMHL to ensure that the most vulnerable babies in the NICU all received breastmilk exposure. As a result, they recorded their first ever year with no cases of NEC. Human milk for the smallest and sickest babies isn’t just driven by some vague notion that breast is best – it literally saves lives, in our very own country.

The Milk Bank is always looking for more donors to donate more milk, and recently had a particular shortage. Many breastfeeding women are unaware that the Milk Bank even exists and needs donations and so the Milk Bank has been trying to increase awareness. If you would like to donate, the Milk Bank will send you some bottles and lids. You will need to express your milk and freeze it in the bottles provided (so you will need access to freezer space if you would like to donate). You can hand express, use a pump or use a suction collection device such as a Haakaa (this is not an affiliate link). Once you have filled the bottles they sent, or wish to stop donating, you post the bottles to the milk bank using a styrofoam box that they provide. That’s it! Your postage will be refunded and you have helped save babies’ lives.

Due to the fact that the milk goes to the smallest and sickest babies, there are strict criteria that exclude some women from donating. Make sure you are eligible to donate before you start pumping. However, even if you are not eligible, you might like to donate your milk privately. There are informal milk donation groups online and there are often parents looking for milk for their babies. 

I am not eligible for milk bank donation, but have had the privilege of donating milk privately to two families who required breastmilk in the past. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to provide a tangible support to other mothers and babies. As a pro-life advocate, I highly recommend donating breastmilk if you’re in a position to do so.