Banking on 'breast is best'

FIRST IN NZ: The Breast Milk Bank driving force at Christchurch Women's Hospital, from left, Anthea Franks (registered nurse), Helen Little (neonatal dietitian), Bernard Hutchison (associate clinical nurse manager) and Dr Maggie Meeks (consultant neonatologist).
STACY SQUIRES/Fairfax NZ
FIRST IN NZ: The Breast Milk Bank driving force at Christchurch Women's Hospital, from left, Anthea Franks (registered nurse), Helen Little (neonatal dietitian), Bernard Hutchison (associate clinical nurse manager) and Dr Maggie Meeks (consultant neonatologist).

Canterbury mothers will soon be the first in the country to have access to a formal human breastmilk bank.

Christchurch Women's Hospital plans to open the country's first human breastmilk bank within the next six months after four years of extensive consultation with other banks and potential donors and recipients.

Some New Zealand maternity facilities previously had milk banks, but they were closed when the HIV virus became an increasing concern in the 1980s.

Consultant neonatologist Dr Maggie Meeks said the project was put on hold after the February 22 earthquake, but in January the Canterbury Neonatal Unit Trust agreed to provide $150,000 to establish the bank and the Canterbury District Health Board agreed to cover the annual running costs of about $50,000. It would initially be available only to high-risk infants in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (Nicu), but Meeks hoped it could later be expanded to include the wider community.

The Nicu used about four litres of formula each day, keeping up to 40 babies nourished. Having breastmilk available would make formula unnecessary, Meeks said.

"Nothing is better than breastmilk; it's the most immunological and nutritious milk that they could have." Mothers' Milk NZ spokeswoman Emma Ryburn said the costs involved in a formal milk bank were small compared with how much it cost to look after premature and sick babies.

She welcomed the news that Christchurch was finally ready to open its own formal service, although many people were already sharing breastmilk in the community through word-of- mouth and online social networks.

Neonatal Trust (Canterbury) chairwoman Sally Gregory said she wished there had been a breastmilk bank available when her daughter was born six years ago.

"She was born at 25 weeks at 750 [grams] and I had such a great supply of milk. I had to throw away three big wheelbarrows full of frozen milk when I moved house three years later."

The Press