A milk bank has been set up for the first time in Wales to help ill or premature babies and, over time, mothers facing feeding difficulties.
The new milk bank hub, based in Singleton Hospital, Swansea, is supplying human milk to babies being cared for in hospital, with much of the milk being donated by Welsh mothers.
Donor milk can help ill or premature babies in supporting their feeding, growth and development and in preventing complications, while also supporting mothers who need time to establish their own milk supply.
Until now, hospitals in Wales had received donor milk directly from milk banks in England.
As the milk hub begins operating to its full capacity, babies across south Wales will be able to receive milk from the hub in Singleton Hospital, as it will supply donor milk to the other health boards in south Wales.
Having a milk hub based locally will also allow more women from Wales to donate their milk to help support mothers and babies who need it.
Taylor Pearson was the first mother to put herself forward as a donor after giving birth to her daughter at the University Hospital of Wales, in Cardiff, in January 2021.
The 29-year-old, from Cardiff, decided to donate her excess breast milk to help other mothers who may be experiencing difficulties with breastfeeding.
“After my daughter was born last year I found that I had an excessive supply of breastmilk which was more than she needed,” she said.
“I asked staff at the hospital if they had any milk bank facilities after reading about it online and I was told there wasn’t anything in Wales.
“I contacted Hearts Milk Bank, just north of London, who told me that a hub would be opening in Wales. Closer to the time they contacted me and asked if I still wanted to donate and I said yes.
“I didn’t want to waste my breast milk. I know quite a few people who have had babies in NICU (neonatal intensive care units) and I know it can be quite difficult to get your supply to breastfeed, especially when you’re separated from your baby.
“If people really want to breastfeed but are struggling then this can help.”
Each donor goes through a screening process, which includes questionnaires and blood tests to rule out any infections.
They then provide at least two litres of milk over 10 weeks, which is then pasteurised, before being frozen and stored ready to be given to babies.
Taylor added: “It’s giving families who have their heart set on breastmilk more options to feed their baby when not having access to milk is the only reason they can’t do so.”
Helen James, matron for neonatal services, said: “Exclusive breast milk feeding can improve long-term development outcomes and donor milk is often used as a bridging gap while lactation is being established.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity for Swansea Bay and a privilege to host this hub to support neonatal units across Wales.”
Blood Bikes Wales, a charity that provides a free courier service to the NHS, had previously been transporting donor milk from England to Singleton Hospital for babies in need.
The charity will continue to deliver the supplies to Swansea and to each of the health board regions in Wales to make it easier for mothers and babies to receive the donor milk.
Dr Sujoy Banerjee, consultant neonatologist and clinical director for children and young people services, said: “The first human milk bank hub in Wales will offer an invaluable resource for the care of premature and sick newborn babies, preventing complications, and improving outcomes.
“It will provide equity and easy access of human milk for clinical services in south Wales and will make it easier for lactating mothers to donate their excess milk for the benefit of many babies.
“The project is a great example of a social, healthcare and research collaboration and will raise awareness and promote breastfeeding in our communities.
“We are very proud to be given the opportunity to host this project.”
The hub has been launched thanks to research and funding from Swansea University, which will study the impact it has on supporting families.
Professor Amy Brown, director for the centre of Lactation, Infant Feeding and Translation at Swansea University, said: “We were delighted to have been awarded research funding from Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) to develop our infant feeding research.
“Part of this funding enabled the set up and delivery of the hub alongside a programme of research to examine its impact within the hospital and community.
“Going forward we will be conducting a number of research studies to better understand how donor milk can support families including when babies are born prematurely but also where breastfeeding might not be possible, such as when a mother is undergoing cancer treatment.
“We are particularly interested in how donor milk may support parental mental health, both through receiving it for a baby or from the experiences of breastfeeding mothers being able to donate their milk to support other families.”
The university was helped to launch the first hub in Wales by the Human Milk Foundation, a charity that supports parents to feed their babies with human milk.
As part of her work at Imperial College to research the impacts of human milk banks, Dr Natalie Shenker co-founded the UK’s first independent, non-profit human milk bank, Hearts Milk Bank, which will manage the hub in Swansea.
“The aim of the charity is to make sure there’s national equity for families to both receive and donate milk,” she said.
“Wales hasn’t had a milk bank service of its own for many years, and that has really affected how many mums are able to donate, and how hospitals can use donor milk, if there are challenges in accessing sufficient supplies when needed.
“We know it can be a wonderful thing for mums to be able to donate their milk to help other families.
“It can be utterly heartbreaking for women to have to throw away their milk, particularly for mothers with babies in hospital, and those whose babies sadly do not survive.”
Gareth Howells, executive director of nursing, said: “Everyone at Swansea Bay is committed to building a truly equitable service where families can donate and access donor human milk.
“We are very proud to be opening our milk hub at Singleton Hospital.
“We are also looking forward to helping more families to receive and donate human milk and to growing the hub in the coming years.”