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Banking on breast milk

When Jyoti was born a month ago, she was underweight and diagnosed with a hole in her heart. Worse, her mother, Promodini Kate, could not breastfeed her.

mumbai Updated: Jan 31, 2011 01:54 IST
Priya Prabhakaran

When Jyoti was born a month ago, she was underweight and diagnosed with a hole in her heart. Worse, her mother, Promodini Kate, could not breastfeed her.

Aware of the benefits of breast milk, which boosts immunity and promotes growth, Kate felt guilty for being unable to breastfeed her daughter. “I suffered from convulsions and low blood pressure. When Jyoti was born she weighed a mere 800 grams. I was upset for and could not feed her due to my weakness,” said the 30-year-old Khargar resident.

This is when the Human Milk Bank at Sion Hospital came to Jyoti’s rescue. Every two hours, a nurse would fill a syringe with breast milk donated by an unknown woman and inject it into a tube attached to Jyoti’s mouth. After a month’s breast milk diet, Jyoti gained 200 grams.

“Seeing the improvement in Jyoti, I am now confident about her health,” said Kate referring to treatment that Jyoti has to undergo to correct the heart defect. Thousands of children like Jyoti, who could not be breastfed for varied reasons, owe their health to the Human Milk Bank, which was set up at Sion Hospital in 1989.

Last December, the bank reached an important milestone when it recorded an annual collection of 1325 litres, the highest in its 22-year existence.

Started by Dr Armida Fernandes, the bank was the first of its kind in Asia. Later, JJ Hospital and KEM Hospital also started human milk banks in the city.

Dr Jayashree Mondkar, head of Sion Hospital’s neonatology department and the Human Milk Bank attributes the record collection to increased awareness among women.

Donors include lactating mothers who are unable to breastfeed their own babies or produce excess milk. “Sometimes when a baby is unable to suckle because s/he is too weak, the mother is asked to donate milk to ensure that she continues to lactate till the baby becomes healthier,” said Dr Mondkar.

Jayshree Kokre, 30, lost her week-old child this month. She donated milk to the bank till she continued to lactate. “I am happy that I could help another child,” said the Ulhasnagar resident.

The bank also helped improve the health of the twins born to Hepsiba Mallikarjun, 22, on January 20. “It was her first delivery and it wasn’t possible for her to breastfeed both the hungry children,” said Dr T Parvathi, a resident doctor in the hospital’s paediatric unit. The twin boy and girl are still underweight, but Dr Parvathi is confident about their health improving.

But how does donated milk compare with packaged formula milk prescribed by many doctors? “Formula milk has all the nutrients that human milk can provide but lacks immunological properties,” said Dr Mondkar, adding that international reports suggest that a million child deaths across the world could be avoided if children are breastfed.