This mum’s banking on the nation’s breast milk to save premature babies…

If I said ‘milk banking’ to you would you know what I’m talking about? No? Nor did I until I met up with Silke Durm from Hearts Milk Bank. Milk banking can help save the lives of thousands of premature babies every year but there is a huge lack of awareness. Silke gave Link West the lowdown on Hearts Milk Bank’s vision…


But to begin, a few facts about milk banking...

1) A woman’s breast milk should come within a few days after giving birth but women who give birth before their full term do not always have milk straight away.

2) Many breast cancer survivors are unable to breastfeed after giving birth.

3) Roughly 10% of all babies born every year are premature.

4) A huge 99% of people (including myself, born 2 months premature) don’t know what a milk bank is.

5) There is a donor breast milk shortage…so Hearts Milk Bank, the only social entreprise milk bank service are working on the solution

So Silke, what exactly is milk banking?

Breast milk banks ensure a safe delivery of donor breast milk (which must be pasteurised before going to prem babies) It’s similar to a blood transfusion service. They recruit, screen, collect and distribute milk to premature babies in need. Nearly 70,000 premature babies are born in the UK each year and breast milk can play a vital role in their survival.

So Hearts Milk Bank was set up to help meet the demand?

Yes, The Hearts Milk Bank is not to replace the NHS milk banks but to support them by filling some of the gaps. It’s impossible for the NHS to do it all themselves. Some areas for example like London and the South East of England are faced with a donor breast milk lottery. Access to donor breast milk is completely dependant on the availability within a certain geographical area at a certain time. The Hearts Milk Bank will put an end to that. The NHS cannot provide donor milk to all hospitals with neonatal intensive care units. This is why Dr Natalie Shenker and Gillian Weaver, the Co-founders of the Hearts Milk Bank decided to set up an independent milk bank.

Was milk banking something Natalie and Gillian were involved in prior to taking on this challenge?

After graduating with a first class degree from Oxford University in Medicine Dr Natalie Shenker began training in paediatric surgery. She then went on to do a masters and then a PhD in epigenetic risk markers of breast cancer. It was then she became fascinated by the use of donated human milk to prevent disease in very fragile babies.

Gillian Weaver ran one of the oldest milk banks in the world for over two decades, was the national lead for the UK Association for Milk Banking (UKAMB) and was the President of the European Milk Bank Association. Using their knowledge and experience The Hearts Milk Bank also wants to run a Breast Cancer Research lab where donor milk not used for premature babies will be used for research.

What is your role and why did you get involved Silke?

I am a spokesperson for Hearts Milk Bank because I had two premature babies and understand the
importance of breast milk banking. One of my premature babies, Max, born at 25 weeks, was given donor breast milk because I wasn’t able to express enough milk for him in the first few days. Even though we did all that was medical and humanly possible, Max did not survive and died from NEC (necrotising enterocolitis) when he was 6 days old. But, at least I know he had everything he possible could have to fight for his life. I have a second son called Felix who was born 12 weeks early and is now a healthy, cheeky boy. We were lucky to have had donor breast milk but it makes me angry to think other people just don’t get such a simple thing as breast milk.


You’re setting up a women’s breastfeeding hub- what does that involve?

The Expresso Clubs are also going to be a big part of Hearts Milk Bank. It’s a place where women can get breastfeeding advice from a lactation consultant, meet with other women and talk about their experiences. Sometimes when you give birth you may be in the hospital for just a day and then you’re out again. With no prior experience you are left to fill your gaps in knowledge by yourself which can be quite daunting.

And you’ve just started a crowdfunding campaign. What do you want to achieve?

We’re setting up a new lab space and we’re looking to raise about £50,000 with indiegogo.  This money will be used to buy very specialised lab equipment including two pasteurisers that heat treat the breast milk. The aim is to process 2,000 litres of donor milk a year by the end of year two.


Help The Hearts Milk Bank spread the word by watching and sharing their video… 

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