A new breast milk bank operated by The Red Cross is stepping up in a big way in support of premature and vulnerable babies in the neonatal intensive care units at two of South Australia's biggest hospitals. For the next three years, NICU babies currently receiving care at Flinders Medical Centre and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in South Australia will be eligible to access to donated breast milk, thanks to the recent launch of the new bank.
According to The Red Cross, thousands of babies are born prematurely across Australia every year. Globally, that number climbs into the tens of millions. Most experts agree that an exclusive diet of breast milk is the best form of nutrition for infants up to at least six months of age. Not only does it offer protection against infections and illnesses, but it also has been shown to benefit cognitive functioning and a reduced risk of ongoing health problems in the future.
When it comes to premature babies, breast milk is crucially important. Premature babies often struggle to breastfeed at birth, and some mothers are unable to express their milk. Unlike infant formula, breast milk is much easier to digest, which can be a challenge for premature babies with immature digestive systems. It also contains lipase, an enzyme helps premature babies absorb fat, aiding their growth and development. Lactose, another component, helps them absorb minerals, and oligosaccharide, a carbohydrate, prevents the growth of harmful bacteria in the intestine, reducing the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis.
Milk banks, like the latest one in Australia, have strict procedures and regulations when it comes to properly screening donated breast milk. Firstly, donors are screened for infections that can be passed through their milk. They must disclose any existing health conditions, medications they are taking, as well as their alcohol and caffeine consumption. Interestingly, even if some women suffer from certain health conditions, take medication and drink small amounts of coffee and alcohol, they won't necessarily be ruled out as donors.
After donors are screened, their milk is tested for bacteria and then put through a pasteurization process - which involves heating it to 62.5ºC (144.5ºF) for 30 minutes, and then rapidly cooling it. The milk is once again tested for bacteria and then frozen. This combination of pasteurization and freezing gets rid of bacteria and viruses, while also preserving most of the beneficial elements contained in the milk.
Similar to the process of ordering blood supplies, the breast milk bank in Australia will allow staff in neonatal units to order donated breast milk on demand. Estimates have shown that this will require approximately 300 litres each year to meet the current demand.