We go behind the scenes at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital to find out how its milk banks are helping new mothers across the capital
Behind an unobtrusive fire door on the fourth floor of Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea Hospital (QCCH) stand five tall, white freezers. They are unremarkable, but what’s inside them is anything but. Each shelf is packed with containers of precious donor breast milk, which has been painstakingly expressed by altruistic mothers in the hope that it will help premature babies survive.
“It’s the gift of one mother to another mother’s baby,” says the milk bank’s manager Gillian Weaver. “It’s a very special thing to do at a time when you are never more aware of the preciousness of life.” Having officially opened in 1939 on the hospital’s old Goldhawk Road site, this is the oldest continually-operating milk bank in the world. Last year alone, it sent out 734 litres of the life-giving liquid to neonatal units across the capital and Home Counties. [quote_box_right]The milk bank started as a result of a set of quads, who were born at home in Cambridgeshire. For the first six weeks of their life, the babies were fed with milk that was collected from mums on the ‘laying-in’ ward at Queen Charlotte’s. The milk was taken by motorcycle to Hendon airfield and then amazingly it was flown twice a day in a light aircraft by a volunteer, who was the GP’s daughter. The babies’ survival was largely put down to the fact that they had been fed this breast milk, which prompted the development of a permanent milk bank. Today, there are 15 of them across the UK.[/quote_box_right] Human milk is good for premature babies as they have very immature digestive systems and are able to absorb it far more easily than formula. And although the milk bank has to pasteurise the donated milk to kill off any harmful bacteria, donor breast milk still contains antibodies that boost the immune system and hormones that encourage the growth of the gut.
Breast milk also helps avoid a condition called necrotising enterocolitis, which causes the intestine to become inflamed and start to die. It is most common in preterm babies and can be life-threatening. “They don’t know why it happens, but what is known is that babies who are exclusively fed with breast milk, including donor milk, are significantly less likely to develop it.” Unfortunately, many mothers of preterm babies can’t offer enough of their own milk straight away. “If a mum’s had a preterm baby, it can take longer to get a good milk supply going,” explains Weaver. “Stress, anxiety and tiredness also play a part.”
That’s where donor milk comes in. Each year, the milk bank recruits around 150 mothers. The majority of donors are mothers who are exclusively breastfeeding a healthy full-term baby. The rest of the donations come from mums who have had a baby on a neonatal unit. “If a mother has a baby that’s very ill and who doesn’t feed on much, they can often bank a litre a day in the freezer.” So when their baby goes home, they donate whatever they don’t need. Remarkably, mothers whose babies have died also donate. Weaver is keen to stress that donor milk is there as a temporary supplement, though, and points out that most babies are given donor milk for five days or less.
This approach – which is supported by the Winnicott Foundation, the charity that raises money for the neonatal units across the corridor at QCCH and at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington – means that a large number of mums are breastfeeding when they take their baby home. “When you have a milk bank,” agrees Weaver, “it underlines the fact that you truly believe in feeding babies with breast milk.”
We talk to the mothers who have relied on the Milk Bank’s services to help their new born through those first days. The tell us their story here.
Want to donate? Find out more here: imperial.nhs.uk/qcch