Human milk banks: An essential component of a breastfeeding-friendly health system

May 15, 2019

launch of human milk bank
Mr. HE Patrick O’Donovan, Minister of the State of Ireland, put the first batch of donor milk into the pasteurizer at the second human milk bank of Viet Nam at Tu Du Hospital. Photo credit: Tu Du Hospital.

Breastfeeding is vital for child survival, growth, and cognitive development, and contributes to the socioeconomic development of families, communities, and nations. The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF recommend that mothers breastfeed their babies within the first hour of life and exclusively for the first six months, and continue to breastfeed along with appropriate complementary feeding up to two years of age and beyond.

For infants unable to receive breastmilk from their mothers, human milk banks (HMBs) serve a vital role. Human milk banking is an essential component of a breastfeeding-friendly health system, giving pre-term, low birthweight, and other vulnerable infants access to the multiple benefits of breastmilk when they need it most.

HMBs are comprised of systems and processes that allow for recruiting breastmilk donors, collecting donated milk, and then processing, screening, storing, and distributing the milk to infants in need.

Mother milk donor expressing milk at home. The milk is collected every 2 weeks by a health worker and taken to the Da Nang Human Milk Bank where it gets processed before distribution to babies.

A supportive breastfeeding environment is crucial to the success of an HMB. When mothers receive adequate support to breastfeed from family, community members, health workers, employers, and others, they are more likely to start and continue breastfeeding. Increasing resources for breastfeeding programs, and advocating for policies that are supportive of breastfeeding leads to a stronger and more effective HMB system. These efforts include strengthening policies that enforce and monitor the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Code) and creation of Centers of Breastfeeding Excellence.

Since 2014, Irish Aid has been supporting A&T’s portfolio in Southeast Asia to create an enabling environment for breastfeeding, through the development and implementation of policies and laws to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding. In 2017, this focus broadened to include healthcare provider behavior change and development of health facilities that are breastfeeding-friendly – including the provision of HMBs.

The first two HMBs were opened by the Ministry of Health (MoH), in partnership with A&T and others, in Viet Nam at Da Nang Hospital for Women and Children (2017) and Tu Du Hospital (2019). To accompany these openings, A&T is supporting the MoH in developing national guidelines for human milk banking to enable the establishment of a country-wide HMB service network, integrating HMB services into other breastfeeding promotion activities in health facilities, and increasing access to human milk for all infants.