The Human Milk Bank

Pradip Bhandari
CEO, Jan ki Baat

In a country which spends less than 2% of GDP on healthcare, and is yet to overcome criminal medical negligence in BRD Medical college Gorakhpur, I witnessed a story of collective medical innovation, and human empathy in Lady Harding College, New Delhi. This government of India funded college is more than six decades old, and hosts one of its kind Human Milk Banks in India.

Pediatrics is a branch of medical science that studies the new born. Neonatology is a sub-science that refutes the generally acceptable hypothesis that the baby is a miniature form of the adult.

For a baby’s healthy development, mother’s milk is the most important ingredient. It is must for mental, social, emotional and intellectual development of the baby. Healthy babies are called full term babies with adequate size weight. They are born out of regular pregnancy cycle(9 months) of the mother, and are less prone to viral diseases.

However, babies which are preterm(less than 9 months) or post term babies, that is having developed prematurely, or taken more time to deliver (roughly 9 months plus 7 days) are more prone to infections, and do not have the energy to suck the milk.

The mother's milk is a living cell. It is necessary for intellectual development of the New born, acts as an anti-infectant, and has growth factors. Unlike the West, which advises the preterm mothers for intravenous nutrition as a substitute to mother's milk, the indigenous medical philosophy believes in the right of every baby to get mother's milk.This makes it critical to find ways and means for the pre-term and post term babies to receive mother's milk; especially as the premature baby does not possess the energy to suck the milk. This is where the novel milk bank serves the need.

The milk bank is different from a blood bank, stresses Dr. Sushma, Head of Department of Neonatalogy. The focus is on counseling the mothers who have given birth to pre term or post term babies so that they can feed. Our aim is that every mother breast-feeds her baby. We consult them socially, emotionally and medically, adds Dr.Sushma.

Initially old women in the family used to perform this social counseling, which is absent with growing number of nuclear families. The lactation management Centre at Lady Harding fills this void. For mothers giving more milk than needed by the babies, they can voluntarily donate the milk. It is a completely voluntary decision with no monetary or kind incentive. The collected milk is pooled. The sister hospital for the new born, Sucheta Kriplani, has 14000 potential deliveries every year. The surplus milk from these 14000 potential deliveries is pooled and collected in a separate unit Milk Bank.

The Milk Bank unit has 8 lactation counselors. These counselors are nurses trained in counseling the mothers. Sister-in-charge Sangita Arora and Chief Counselor sister Samuel listed the extra precautions taken by the staff to socially counsel the mothers. "Since the idea of a milk Bank is very novel, we were given training by the Norwegian nurses", states sister Samuel. The equipments in the milk bank are contributed by the Embassy of Norway under Indo-Norwegian collaborative project.

Precautionary measures in hygiene and cleanliness are non-compromisable, asserts the member of cleaning staff, Harish. He enlists the precautions taken, which includes multiple washing, careful pasteurization and boiling of the milk bottles. The pooled milk is stored in these bottles that are deep-frozen. On being asked about his job, Harish is aware of his responsibility and expressed joy in working in this unit.

“So are the mothers apprehensive?” I asked Dr. Mamta, doctor-in-charge of Milk Bank, having more than 2 decades of medical experience. "Yes they are initially", responds Dr. Mamta. Generally, the problem faced by them is pain in the breasts due to surplus milk. She recalls the story of Usha, a mother who had visited the hospital in August. She was a paranoid first time mother who had given birth to a pre term baby. After regular counseling and visits at the milk bank, she was able to feed well and donate surplus milk".

After spending a day at the hospital premise, I was relieved to see affordable public health care being delivered by the milk bank.