A service that helps premature and seriously-ill babies across Ireland has appealed for more new mothers to donate breast milk.
The human milk bank run by the Western Health Trust currently has just 20 active donors.
To meet demand from neonatal units it needs between 50 and 100.
Based at the South West Acute hospital in Enniskillen, it helps premature babies and also those with serious heart or intestinal problems.
Human milk contains substances that cannot be synthesised, which helps the babies fight viruses and bacteria and protects them from pneumonia and septicaemia.
In particular it can protect the gut from rupturing, a potentially life-threatening condition called Necrotising enterocolitis.
When Alana Meikle’s daughter Grace was born early, she weighed 5lb 5oz and had severe jaundice.
She received donated milk until her mum was able to breastfeed.
“I didn’t realise donor milk was a thing until Grace was born and thanks to mummies who donate, we were able to give her donor milk to give her the best start to life,” she said.
“Those first few days were vital to clear the jaundice and just give her a real fighting chance when she was born.”
Lynsey Nixon donated her milk while breastfeeding her daughter Olivia, who is now almost eight months old.
She said she thought about it in the same way as donating blood.
“I put myself in the position of mummies like Alana and thinking if I was in that vulnerable position and my baby was born prematurely or my baby was sick,” she said.
“For me it’s a very normal thing to do and I’m very lucky that I’m able to donate my milk.”
She said there was a “very small window” when it came to donation and part of the problem was that new mums only found out about the bank when it was too late to become a donor.
“I think what needs to happen is in your antenatal appointments, when they’re discussing feeding options and breastfeeding, that you are told by the medical staff.”
Breast milk also has unique fats that help the immature brain, eye and nervous system develop better for improved intellect and sight.
The service also supports mothers of twins, triplets and quads who are unable to produce enough milk of their own.
The Western Health Trust human milk bank has been operational since 2000 and is the only one in Ireland.
Subsequently 259 litres (56 gallons) of donated milk was thrown away and neonatal units had to source alternative supplies of breast milk from England.
Since reopening in December 2018, the Western Health Trust said it had processed about 570 litres of donor expressed milk and provided about 510 litres of breast milk to 27 neonatal units in hospitals across Ireland.
This had helped 278 babies, many who required gut surgery or heart surgery, as well as 30 sets of twins and six sets of triplets.
How to become a donor
New mothers are required to be registered by the time their baby reaches three months old.
Donations of expressed milk will be accepted up until the sixth month.
Donors must be screened to ensure they are in good health, non-smokers, not had a blood transfusion, are not on drugs that pass into breast milk, not had a tattoo, body piercing or acupuncture or have visited malarial countries in the last year.
To find out more about becoming a donor contact the Milk Bank on Tel: (028) 6862 8333 or email TMB.SWAH@westerntrust.hscni.net .