Ireland’s only milk bank

The Western Trust helped 901 babies last year.

Like many of you, I moved back to my homeland for the summer: in my case, County Fermanagh. I have a part time job, and I’m glad to be spending more time with my family. Recently in a pub called Grannie Annie’s I had a surprising revelation about my local town, Irvinestown. It has the only human milk donor bank in Ireland.

My father’s friend Ian has a new baby, and told me this over loud country music and a pint. I was in disbelief – not because I didn’t believe Irvinestown was capable of having a milk bank, but because it was the only one on the entire island!

To me, Irvinestown has always been a place of great community spirit, albeit with too much small-town talk and country music for me to handle in large doses. However, discovering that your local community is home to a milk bank which is actively supporting vulnerable babies is a game-changing revelation. It makes up for every other culchie thing that has ever happened in the town – even the sheep-poo-spitting competition that they had one year. (Yes, really.)

Down in Dublin we think of ourselves as being civilised, with our Luas lines and burrito bars. Yet it is a milk bank in a small town in rural Northern Ireland which caters for the needs of babies across the whole island. The bank’s full name is the Western Trust milk bank. They process an average of 2,000 litres annually, some milk even being sent as far as Cork on the blood bike service. Mothers expressing and donating are given specific instructions on how to handle their kit and the milk. When donations reach the milk bank they go through a system of testing and processing before they are used.

In 2015, the Western Trust milk bank issued approximately 1,500 litres of milk to hospital units around Ireland. This assisted approximately 856 babies, including 90 sets of twins and 17 sets of triplets. The driving force behind the setting up of the milk bank was Ann McCrea, a breastmilk advisor to women in the Fermanagh area. She is in a unique position in this role to network with breastfeeding women, and as a result was able to set up the milk bank.

McCrea is currently the director of the Western Trust milk bank. I talked with her to find out more about the institute and how it functions. Contrary to what I had assumed, McCrea told me that having only one milk bank on the island is not a bad thing. In fact, because they are the only one, it means they are adequately staffed and are open five days a week.

In her words, they operate as a centralised service, receiving milk from all across Ireland and sending it out all across Ireland. This is in contrast with London, which has many milk banks but each is understaffed and only open part-time.

A centralised system reduces these logistical issues. Thus far Irvinestown’s milk bank has been able to efficiently provide for the needs of all the babies of Ireland, and unless demand changes this will likely remain the case.

Earlier this year the freezers in the milk bank were getting worryingly empty, and subsequently an appeal was made for more donations. Thankfully the mothers of Ireland rallied around, and 2017 is now a record-breaking year for the milk bank with 400 donors. Last year there were 267 donors, which helped 901 babies across Ireland.

Why do we need milk banks?

The people who need milk the most tend to be premature babies in units, whose development is often healthier if they receive breast milk. Liquid gold for the milk bank is when a mother of a premature baby donates her own spare milk. This “premature” milk is different to “full-term” milk, as it is higher in protein and minerals and contains different types of fat that can be more easily digested and absorbed.

The fat in human milk enhances the development of the baby’s brain and neurological tissues – especially important for premature babies. This milk is also rich in antibodies which are crucial for the baby’s immunity. In fact, if a mother is expressing for her own premature baby and is able to get skin to skin contact with it, her milk will contain the antibodies specific to the bacteria the baby requires immunity against. Such complexity is incredible; Ms McCrea describes the female body and breast as a “fantastic production unit”.

However, this complexity may lead to complications. Many new mothers are unable to produce their own milk, the reasons for this ranging from stress to physiological issues. Thus the importance of the milk bank: it can support both mother and baby, reducing pressure on all parties.

If the opposite situation occurs, where a mother is in full health and has an excess milk supply, then she may get in touch with the milk bank and can give her excess milk as a donation.

To me, the milk bank is a great example of true altruism: women helping women and their babies. Some of the most inspiring donors are those mothers who have lost their babies but express their milk in memory of their little ones. Then you have my own mum, who when she heard the milk bank was being set up in 2000, phoned up and said, “come and take my milk or I’m feeding it to the cat”. We didn’t have a cat.

The altruism in the breastfeeding community extends far and wide. At the Western Trust, experienced breastfeeding mums are trained as peer supporters so that they can help other women. Through this support, these peers can help with the problems they faced and overcame, such as blocked ducts or painful nipples.

Here in the Republic, La Leche League are a nationwide organisation who provide mums with research based help and advice. Trinity has its own La Leche league representative, Elizabeth Quinn.

Barriers to breastfeeding

Breastfeeding rates in Ireland and the UK are some of the worst in Europe. The breastfeeding rate for babies aged six months old is only 6% in Ireland. Research does show that long-term breastfeeding confers the most benefit, although the choice is ultimately the mother’s. The low rate of 6% can be explained by some barriers still faced by women on the island of Ireland.

One barrier is the reduced time which new mothers spend in hospital, which means they do not have the same opportunity to recuperate and get feeding set up with the guidance of midwives. But it’s unlikely that this will change in the foreseeable future, as this would require a drastic change in the way hospitals are run.

Another barrier mentioned by Ann McCrea was that some mothers may be apprehensive about feeding in public places. This fear is compounded by people taking offence at public breastfeeding, likely due to ignorance and a view of the breast as a purely sexual part of the body.

This is not just individual ignorance, but is helped by the mass exploitation of the female figure by advertisers; it is used to sell everything from barbeques to perfumes. This means some women may not breastfeed at all in order to continue going out in public without the prospect of being hassled.

However, breasts were for feeding purposes long before they were ever seen as sexual. They are an amazing, functional organ which provides babies with the milk that nourishes and nurtures them. Their exploitation as part of the “sexy sell” is a recent development. Anyone who objects to public breastfeeding should instead reserve their disgust for the “Page 3” tabloid use of breasts to sell newspapers, not the mother in the coffee shop feeding her infant.

Lastly, one big barrier to longer-term feeding is workplaces failing to provide for women who return to work but continue to express and breastfeed. When I dipped into Trinity’s own staff policy on breastfeeding, for example, I was initially impressed to find quoted a guideline from Ireland’s National Breastfeeding Policy, which recommends that “breastfeeding policies should ensure that employees are supported to breastfeed for as long as they choose to do so and recommends that breastfeeding continue for two years or beyond”.

To sustain breastfeeding it is vital that mothers either breastfeed their babies or express breast milk at regular intervals every day. Yet further into the document I discovered that in Ireland, “an employee who is breastfeeding” can only be defined as such within 6 months of giving birth. This means that paid breastfeeding breaks cease after 6 months.

While a mother may take unpaid breaks during her work hours in order to keep breastfeeding, this policy certainly does not encourage longer-term breastfeeding. It is inflexible and does not meet the differing requirements of each mother and baby.

All of these issues and more will need to be addressed in some way to improve our breastfeeding rates, but with organisations like La Leche League and women like Ann McCrea on the scene it won’t be long before there are no barriers left. This is a story of women helping women, and thereby helping themselves.

Maeve McCann

Maeve McCann is a former Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News.