It was a normal Thursday morning… well, as normal as it gets when your 3 children are at home and poorly, the plumber is busy working in the garage, and your front driveway is being dug up. At some point a man in a motorbike stops outside the house, sees someone outside (the plumber) and says: “I’m here for breast milk”. A stunned, embarrassed plumber comes ringing the doorbell saying: “Ehm, there’s a delivery for you?”. Like a meerkat, I try and see who he’s pointing to, but the skip outside the house hides the man from my view. When he’s finally off his motorbike, with his helmet off, I recognise him as the volunteer from the hospital who’s here to collect my 2 litres of breast milk. “Oh, hello! Come in!”, I shout. The plumber is more puzzled than ever…
This was my second (and probably last) donation of 2 litres of breast milk to my local milk bank. There are currently 17 milk banks in the UK, and information and contact details for these can be found on the UKAMB website (http://www.ukamb.org/). Donated breast milk is collected by the milk bank, pasteurised and mainly given to preterm babies and babies recovering from gut surgery.
I first picked up a leaflet about milk donation in the summer of 2012, and I remember getting in touch with my local milk bank to see if they would accept a donation of about 500ml of milk I had in the freezer and didn’t really need for my baby. That’s when I found out that you can only become a milk donor if your baby is younger than 6 months, and if you do, you can then donate milk up to when your baby turns one. This is because the composition of breast milk changes as your baby gets older, and the milk is no longer adequate for the needs of a premature or sick baby. So I made a mental note to get the ball rolling at the right time, should I have another baby in the future.
And that’s what I did. When I went on maternity leave, a few weeks before having my third baby, I got in touch with my local milk bank again to find out what I had to do become a milk donor. I had to answer some basic questions about my lifestyle, read quite a few leaflets, and I was told to fill in a form once my baby was born, with questions about myself, my health, my lifestyle, the labour and birth of my baby etc. I was also informed about the fact that I would have to have blood tests done, and once they had the results back, I would then be notified as to whether I had been accepted as a donor and could start expressing.
At the time I thought they should probably make it a bit easier and more straightforward for someone to become a donor. After all, you’ve just had a baby, you may have older children and quite a few other things to sort out when a baby is born, but then I put myself in their shoes, and in the shoes of the parents of those babies who receive the milk, and I thought it made sense to be thorough.
Once I managed to fill in the forms I had been sent (about myself and my baby), I received a blood test kit to take to my GP. I arranged for an appointment to have my blood tests, had my blood taken (after being moaned at by the nurse at the GP practice, who wasn’t happy to have to use the equipment and container provided by the hospital), and I sent the blood sample off to the hospital to be checked. When the results came back, the milk bank administrator confirmed that they were happy to accept me as a milk donor and sent me a batch of labelled sterilised bottles to fill up.
The requirement from my local milk bank was that you should donate at least 2 litres (or about 70oz), and the milk should not be older than 3 months. I started expressing milk a few weeks after my baby was born, and the only reason for me to do so this time round was purely to donate it to the milk bank. It took me about 3 months to actually get to the required 2 litres, and when I did, I contacted the milk bank to ask to arrange for a collection. It was then that I met the volunteer for the first time.
A few hours after he collected my milk, I received an email from the lady at the milk bank informing me that my milk had been received, still frozen, and everything was ok. I don’t know what happened to my milk after this point, but I do want to believe that the time I spent sterilising my breast pump and expressing, labelling and storing, was all worth it for someone. I want to believe that I took a little bit of stress away from some parents out there who are worrying about their little ones, and that their babies have benefited it from my baby’s milk. (I don’t really see it as MY milk – it’s there because of my baby, and I hope he didn’t mind sharing it with some other little ones).
Milk banks are not the only ways to donate breast milk in the UK. If you are on social media, you can also access a volunteer-only network called Human Milk 4 Human Babies (http://hm4hb.net/), which allows families who wish to share milk or wet-nurse to get in touch with each other. It’s a non-profit organisation that doesn’t receive any kind of funding or financial support. Families receiving breast milk don’t necessarily need it for preterm or ill babies – they might just want some or additional breast milk to feed their babies. Donors don’t go through blood testing, but the whole community works under the assumption that families want to help each other out, rather than do anything that could hinder another baby’s health, so a little trust in the intentions and health of donors and suitability of their milk goes a long way.
In the interest of being balanced here, donating breast milk is not the only option for mums who have excess milk in the freezer and perhaps missed out on becoming donors through a milk bank (or never considered it in the first place). There was a story in the press around Christmas about a lady who donated her breast milk and made about two thousand pounds out of it, which she said she used to buy presents for her children. There are a few websites out there where people can place ads for selling or buying breast milk – the choice is available if it’s something you’d want to consider.
So when the milk bank volunteer left on his bike, I had to face a still-puzzled plumber, who clearly wanted to know what all that was about. “It was a pick-up, not a delivery!”, I said, and then explained the in’s and out’s of it. Feeling a bit better after I gave him the full story (who knows what he was thinking!), I asked him if he wanted a tea or coffee. “Coffee”, he said, “but make sure it’s without milk” 😉
Sara is a mum of two and BabyNatal teacher for West London.
Find out more about Sara on our main website here.