The Human Milk Bank

Got Milk

In recent years, the word “bank” has become something of a dirty word but in Irvinestown, Co. Fermanagh there exists a very special bank, a human milk bank.

Though such institutions are common in other parts of the world, the bank, run by the Western Trust and funded by the UK’s National Health Service, is the only facility of its kind in the 32 counties.

The bank was set up in 2000 when a baby in the care of the Trust found itself requiring human breast milk. Ann McCrea, lactation consultant (a qualified breastfeeding specialist) found herself desperately trying to acquire milk. “We were ringing all the milk banks in England looking for milk and the reply was ‘We haven’t got enough ourselves’,” she tells NewsFour. “Nobody was prepared to help us out, so we got our local experts together and set up our own milk bank under the guidelines that were current at the time.”

Premature babies are susceptible to a condition known as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). This can cause the child’s gut to burst open, releasing harmful bacteria that can only be combated by human breast milk. “Often the child’s own mother will find themselves under so much stress that they physically can’t produce their own milk,” McCrea says.

In the first year of operation, the bank began receiving calls from all over Ireland and now the facility finds itself serving the Republic as much as the North. Last year, 1,056 litres of milk were issued to 692 babies, including 95 sets of twins and 12 sets of triplets.

When NewsFour initially called the bank, they were in the middle of an emergency, attempting to get milk out to a child who required it urgently. Thankfully, the crisis was resolved and the child received the much-needed milk.

Such emergencies are all too common, according to McCrea. “When it happens we have to abandon everything else and prioritise the baby,” she says.

Like any bank, the facility couldn’t exist without deposits. Last year, 253 individual women donated milk but more is required. NewsFour asks McCrea if donors need to pass any specific health requirements, to which she replies “If you can be a blood donor, you can be a milk donor.”

Milk donors are screened in the same manner as blood donors, with the milk then sent to a lab in County Tipperary, where it is screened rigorously by bacterial experts. If it passes their tests, it can be sent out to the babies that require it. The bank also employs a dietician who ensures the milk is labelled appropriately, ensuring babies get the exact type of milk they need.

Donors are sent a thank-you card, a milk donor’s badge and are informed of exactly how many babies their milk has helped.

McCrea is quick to thank all the mothers who have helped their fellow women through donating milk. “I really do admire them. If you’re looking after your own baby and then find time to donate milk, then you’re a superwoman,” she says, “it’s help that only a woman can give to another woman.”

If you’re interested in becoming a breast milk donor or require further information, you can contact the milk bank by calling 048 6862 8333 or emailing:

Pictured: Ann McCrea in her bank’s vault.

By Eric Hillis