High demand for donors at new Canterbury milk bank

In the good old days, sharing breast milk was a cultural norm, but now, securing another mother's breast milk for your baby, is no easy task. However, founder of fledgling milk bank North Canterbury Breast Milk, Natalie Gillespie is hoping her model will catch on around the country. Christine Stride asked Natalie how it all works.

Mother-of-two Natalie Gillespie jokes that when she weaned her two babies, “My boobs didn’t get the memo.”

When her midwife suggested she donate all the extra milk she was making (and having to express for comfort) Natalie jumped at the chance.

Fifteen months later and Natalie, who is also editor of New Zealand’s largest beauty website, Beauty Review, has donated ‘full time’ to a NICU baby for a year, and, primarily through her midwife, to local families as well. Not a week went by in that time without a family or midwife dropping by to pick up milk, Natalie says, sometimes at 11pm on a Saturday night!

"I lost count of the number of passing comments like, “we really need a milk bank,” and, “more people need to know this is an option.”

Fed up with talking about it, Natalie took on the task in March this year, and co-founded North Canterbury Breast Milk with midwife Gill Smith. Other local midwives from The Baby Business were also instrumental in helping set up the milk bank, as well as creating awareness that breast milk donation is a valid option, for donors and recipients. 

OB Who uses the milk (obviously babies!)...but what are some reasons they need it? What’s the most common reason?

NG Haha definitely babies, we're not supplying weight lifters for their smoothies! There are lots of reasons a mother may turn to donated breast milk. Some times (particularly with premature and NICU babies) the mamas are having a difficult time building up their supply, their babies will need topping up. The gorgeous girl I donated to for a year spent her first five weeks on NICU. During this time her mother was pumping 24/7 but her body just didn't respond to the pump.  

A tiny percentage of mums are unable to produce milk due to medical conditions, but still want their babies to benefit from the liquid gold. I've donated to around 15 babies in the first couple of weeks of life, some literally just need 5 - 20mls to fill their tummies while waiting for mum's milk to come in. One baby was exclusively fed on my milk for nine days, and then, boom, mum's milk came in and off they went on their beautiful breastfeeding journey.

OB What things are potential donors screened for?

NG Donors are screened by life style questions and a simple blood test. The blood test is for the same things ladies are screened for antenatally, like HIV, CMV, Syphilis and Hepatitis. The lifestyle questions cover things like alcohol consumption and medication, as well as dietary requirements, for example there's always a demand for lactose or dairy-free breast milk.

Essentially, the most important thing to remember is that a breast milk donor is generally going to be feeding their own baby; so for most recipients it comes down to "if it's good enough for their own child, it's good enough for mine".

OB What rules & regulations do donors need to follow? What advice would you give to potential donors?

NG If a donor passes screening they generally donate in two ways. They either donate their freezer stash or they pump and make regular donations. Hygiene is a must, obviously. Breast milk is sterile as it flows from the breast and we need to do our utmost to keep it that way. Breast pumps and bottles must be washed and sterilised and the milk must be stored in sterile bags according to the recommended breast milk storage guidelines. We provide donors with bags, bottles and pumps, which we funded ourselves in the beginning.  

It's a donor's responsibility to let us know if their lifestyle changes, for example if they have been prescribed medicine that might not be compatible with donating. 

OB What advice would you give potential donors?

NG Feed your own baby, and make sure they're nourished, and only donate what you can comfortably pump. Every single drop is precious – we can't stress that enough – so if you can express 50ml a day, and it's easy for you, then we will gratefully receive it! The last thing we want is for donors to be worried about pumping as much as they can, or trying to increase their supply for donating.

OB How many donors do you have right now? How many would you like? 

NG We've screened about 20 donors in the first month. Most have been one-off donations, but including myself we're getting regular milk donations from five ladies, which is awesome! We really can't have enough donors – the demand will always be there. This week alone we've already turned around 10 litres – and it's only Wednesday.  We've donated to a hungry newborn, a ten week old, and to a baby with a heart condition who has just left NICU.

It's going to be a constant thing, looking for donors. We will always need them, and hopefully as word spreads, and what was once a cultural norm becomes normal again, we'll be able to offer any baby breast milk without needing to triage.

OB Are there any other milk banks in New Zealand operating like you?

NG No. The NICU milk bank is for very poorly babies who have to meet strict criteria to be eligible. At North Canterbury Breast Milk we have the goal of being able to provide for local babies, up until six months, with breast milk, regardless of how healthy they are. The hardest part of our journey so far has been to set up a border and limiting our milk to North Canterbury babies only, but we have a really good reason to do that. In order for our model to be successful, we need to avoid the current national breast milk sharing situation, which isn't organised.  Milk and donors are hard to find.  Families in Christchurch are couriering milk from Auckland, people are having to pay for screening or forgo it altogether.  If we can make our bank successful, other communities will be able to establish their own, using our model.

OB How do you feel about supplying breast milk for babies in need?

NG Being a breast milk donor is incredible. Being able to donate is a gift in itself, I feel lucky I can do it!  When I said goodbye after feeding one little girl for a year I felt a genuine loss, kind of like when my own son weaned. I'd watched this tiny baby grow into a chubby, cheeky girl - and it was me making her grow.

For a brief history of milk banking and a few heartwarming stories of mamas stepping in for other mamas, check out our milk banking article.



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