Just in time for Breastfeeding Awareness Week comes a bright spot of news out of South Africa: In the country's poorest region, KwaZulu-Natal — where an incredibly high infant mortality rate claims thousands of newborn lives each year — health officials are setting up milk banks for breastfeeding mothers to donate breast milk to those in need. That may sound like no big deal, but according to TakePart, the initiative has already been life-changing for the many infants within the province who are orphaned, or whose mothers are too sick to breastfeed.
Speaking with TakePart, Anna Coutsoudis, a public health scientist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said that even just a couple of weeks on a breast milk diet can do amazing things for babies, including protecting them from stomach disease and infection. "It was the only thing we could do if we wanted to reverse our infant mortality statistics," said Coutsoudis, who is helping direct the milk bank set up.
And those infant mortality stats are sadly alarming. The World Bank reports that 33 of every 1,000 babies died before the age of one in South Africa in 2013, and most of them died of preventable or treatable ailments: malnutrition, deadly diarrhea, and pneumonia, to name a few. As Coutsoudis noted to TakePart, health officials are well aware that the nutrients and antibodies found in breast milk not only keep babies healthy, but also better equip them to fight these conditions during those vulnerable early weeks. Hence the reason advocates are pushing for milk banks. But the idea didn't become a reality until this year, when the nation's Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, officially backed the initiative.
Now, with funds pooled from the government and the ELMA Foundation, all major hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal's 11 districts are getting their very own milk bank. TakePart reports that breast milk donors will first be thoroughly screened, and breast milk will be hand-expressed by the donors into sterile containers. And then there's this cool part: Each milk bank will also be outfitted with a brand new pasteurization device called the FoneAstra. The convenient little gadget, which was developed by South African scientists and researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, works with a mobile phone to flash-heat milk before it's fed to babies, so it's just the right temperature.
While the donations will first be given to babies whose mothers have died, it will also be distributed in cases where mothers may be too sick to create milk. "It's giving that mom a chance to recover or build up her breast milk supply so she can then take over," said Coutsoudis.
There are of course many circumstances that might stand in the way of breastfeeding, though both the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics do recommend that babies breastfeed a minimum of six months. Over the last few years, health officials worldwide, as well as right here in the U.S. have pushed for an increased awareness. And here are four signs that it may be paying off:
1. Major City Hospitals Are Embracing Milk Donations More Than Ever
In addition to pro-breastfeeding campaigns cropping up every August for Breastfeeding Awareness Month, milk banks are growing in number, too. They've even made their way to big cities, like New York, where a growing number of city hospitals are giving donated breast milk to premature babies. "We know that there are benefits for the low-birth-weight baby," Dr. Martha Caprio, who runs the NICU at NYU Langone Medical Center, told the New York Daily News. "Maternal milk does improve outcomes." Boston has also seen an increase in breast milk donations over the last year, according to Boston Magazine, and that's largely thanks to the growing Mother's Milk Bank North East.
2. Milk Banks Are Popping Up In Areas They've Never Been Before
Milk banks are also expanding to new regions they've never been, like South Carolina, which recently created its first-ever statewide donation center, according to the South Carolina Hospital Association. "We are creating a way for every woman in South Carolina to be able to donate milk," said Dr. Sarah Taylor of the Children’s Hospital. "When giving, moms will know that they are really serving all the babies around the state."
3. We're Seeing More Programs Encouraging Mothers To Feel Comfortable Breastfeeding — And Keep At It Longer
One of the biggest deterrents a new mother faces when it comes to breastfeeding is the simple fact that doing it in public isn't always welcomed. And yet going out into public is kind of... well, an inevitability when you have a kid (and are a human being living in the world). Earlier this year, the movement #NormalizeBreastfeeding aimed to change all that. The awareness campaign was just the latest in a string of movements hoping to shatter the stigmas of public breastfeeding. Except this time, something seems to have clicked —the campaign hosts nurse-ins, pushes for fair public breastfeeding laws, and raises awareness about discrimination.
Across the pond, Britain's low breastfeeding rates have even led to some eye-opening measures, too. Take the headline-making study led last year, which had researchers paying new mothers to breastfeed for six months (totaling $310 in shopping vouchers). While the initiative raised more than a few eyebrows, it was all done in an effort to lower breastfeeding drop-off rates, and study the outcome.
If you would like to learn more about breast milk donation, head to the Human Milk Banking Association of America to find a donation center or read frequently asked questions.