‘Breast is best’ has become a mantra ever since the World Health Organization recommended that mothers feed babies exclusively on breast milk for the first six months. Breast is only possible if the mother is present and healthy enough to breastfeed and is producing enough milk. The benefits of human breast milk -also referred to as liquid gold- abound with numerous studies suggesting that babies who are exclusively breastfed may be less susceptible to disease and less likely to develop behavioural problems as teens.
So what are parents to do when the mother is ill or passes away or is unable to produce milk for various reasons including the baby is premature? Historically, when mothers couldn’t provide breast milk for their babies, they turned to wet nurses to give babies what they needed. Today mothers can opt to supplement breast milk with formula but experts maintain that breast is best. This is true for healthy babies born without complications but breast milk makes an even bigger difference for babies born prematurely. Usually, when babies are born prematurely their mothers have not yet started producing milk.
Consider the fact that one in eight babies are born premature and that premature babies are 10 times more likely to catch infections. Some studies have suggested that giving premature babies human milk instead of formula helps lessen the risk of infections and diseases such as necrotizing enterocolitis. This is a serious problem in which the intestines necrose or die and can cause harm or death to a premature baby. On breast milk, premature babies have higher survival rates than when they receive formula which often contains hard-to-digest cow’s milk. Breast milk also reduces the risk of allergies, while improving blood pressure and bone density. Pre-term babies who receive breast milk instead of formula are less likely to develop insulin resistance, obesity and high levels of bad cholesterol.
Breast milk banks are facilities run usually by hospitals and non-profits that provide breast milk to mothers who need it. Breast milk is donated from carefully screened donors. Donors are usually healthy, conscientious women who care about the health of babies. They are often nursing their own infants, have an abundant milk supply and donate their extra milk to the bank. For this generous act, they receive no payment or compensation, except the satisfaction that comes from knowing they have helped improve the health of a fragile baby.
The benefits of a breast milk bank go beyond just the family on the receiving end. As anyone who has overproduced milk knows, it can be really painful. And when doctors advise simply to step into the shower and empty the excess milk down the drain, you know you are in unreasonable territory. It often doesn’t work and we are wasting a nutritional product that could either be a) helpful to someone in need b) comforting to another mother or c) a gift of gold, offering a nutritional boost to a baby in a fragile state during the first days of life. The loss of a baby causes terrible grief. Some bereaved mothers find a small amount of comfort in donating their milk to help other sick or premature babies. Many breast milk banks have special programs for bereaved breast milk donors. (Huffington Post, My Southern Health)
The donated breast milk is collected, screened, pasteurized and then dispensed as breast milk. This process ensures the milk is safe for consumption while preserving its beneficial properties of the milk. Breast milk banks make precious milk available to all who need it and even if- as some may argue – breast milk has been vastly overrated, it still should be widely available as a choice for mothers who can’t naturally provide milk.
Pumwani Maternity Hospital in Nairobi is working to set up a breast milk bank which will be the first of its kind in Kenya. It is a joint initiative between the Ministry of Health and an NGO, Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (Path). The CS Sicily Kariuki praised the initiative saying, ‘Breastfeeding is a low-cost and high-impact practice. Breastfeeding is the baby’s first vaccine and the best source of nutrition.’
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