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Donated breast milk on the menu for Townsville’s tiniest patients

Published:  18 November 2019

When a complicated pregnancy led to an emergency c-section at just 30 weeks, new mum Beck Spooner found herself unable to produce enough milk for her tiny son Judd, culminating in the heartbreaking feeling that she was letting him down.

“Nothing had gone to plan and I wanted to be able to breastfeed so badly; I felt like even after everything, the one thing I could do was to provide him with food,” Beck said.

“Like so many new mums, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself and felt so much guilt that he would have to be topped up with formula.”

All that changed when Judd’s clinicians, Dr Sue Ireland and clinical nurse consultant Anne Illingsworth asked Beck if, instead of formula, she would like Judd to be the first recipient of donated breast milk as part of a new partnership between the Townsville Hospital and Health Service and Australian Red Cross Lifeblood.

“When they asked me if I’d like to use the donor milk I was so happy I cried,” Beck said.

“Knowing that Judd was still going to get the full benefits of breast milk took so much pressure off me; my body is still healing from complications following the pregnancy and birth. By being more relaxed, and giving my body a chance to heal, I am hopeful that I can increase my supply while knowing that he’s getting topped up with the best.”

The new service has been more than two decades in the making, driven by the passionate staff in The Townsville Hospital’s neonatal unit who were determined to give parents of sick babies the option of breast milk instead of formula in the event a mother was unable to produce her own milk.

Townsville Hospital neonatal unit intensive care nurse unit manager Nicole Summers said breast milk offered a number of benefits to sick or pre-term babies.

“Babies in our NICU, particularly those who are pre-term, face a number of health challenges and being able to give breast milk to these babies can help to reduce these challenges,” Ms Summers said.

“Breast milk was made for human babies, so it is generally much easier for sick and pre-term infants to tolerate because it is easier to digest, coats the gut, protects the gastrointestinal tract, improves feed tolerance and provides protection against serious infection.

“Setting up a milk bank on site would have required a large amount of equipment and logistical challenges. Partnering with Australian Red Cross Blood Lifeblood removed all those barriers, offering a simple solution to benefit our little patients.”

Ms Summers said offering pasteurised human breast milk was also about giving parents more choice in their baby’s ongoing care.

“Currently, if a woman is able to produce milk but her baby is too little or unable to breast feed, she is encouraged to express and her baby is fed through a feeding tube or bottle,” she said.

“Unfortunately, when a baby is born prematurely, a mother’s body can have trouble establishing a milk supply.

“If a mum can’t produce breast milk, or can’t produce enough milk, we previously had no option but to feed the baby formula.

“While a parent may still opt to feed their baby formula during their stay in the neonatal unit, we’ve had a number of parents over the years who have been disappointed that they couldn’t feed their baby breast milk. The unit is elated to be able to provide this option to parents.”

Lifeblood Milk Manager Chris Sulfaro said the organisation was honoured to be able to provide the service to Queensland babies.

“Our milk service means the neonatal unit at The Townsville Hospital will be able to order pasteurised breast milk on demand, just as they currently do for blood, to help these most vulnerable pre-term or ill babies,” she said.

Ms Sulfaro said the donated breast milk was currently collected in New South Wales and South Australia by approved donors.

“Safety is our number one priority and we have stringent processes in place to screen donors, collect, process and test the donated breast milk, and finally track and distribute this precious resource,” she said.

“We couldn’t be prouder to apply our leading-edge research, skills and expertise to human milk to potentially improve the health outcomes of so many at-risk babies.”

With little Judd now gaining weight quickly, Beck said she was so grateful to everyone who had been involved in their care.

“It’s thanks to Dr Watson and his team that Judd and I are even here today,” Beck said.

“And the lactation consultants, midwifes and the team in the special care nursery have made us feel so involved in every aspect of Judd’s care. The doctors and nurses are world class.

“And to all the amazing donor mummas out there, thank you. You are truly incredible.”

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