“Breast is Best”: since the dawn of humankind, what has been taken for granted as common sense has finally been written in stone by the World Health Organisation. Indeed, if it weren’t for the employment of somewhat “strong and dishonest” marketing campaigns by formula feed manufacturers, to instil into society the notion that formula milk is somehow superior to breast milk for newborns and infants, this seemingly obvious statement might not have been necessary. The “Breast is Best” campaigners hold the upper hand again. Not all mothers are able to breastfeed their babies; however, they still want their babies to drink breast milk. They rely on a concept called milk banking, and a technique called pasteurisation…
It’s easy to see how the idea of formula milk being better than breast milk gained traction. Typical breast feeding conditions such as cracked nipples, babies not sucking properly, or not seeming to be satisfied after feeding, leads to discouragement. Bad advice from inexperienced and insufficiently skilled health care providers is also a reason, where mothers are cajoled into formula feeding as the more convenient option. There are also more women in the workforce now than ever before, but industry’s adaption to the needs of mothers who still wish to nurse their babies has lagged behind somewhat. Short maternity leave conditions and lack of empathy in the workplace for mothers with babies requiring feeding are just some of the factors responsible for mothers turning to artificial substitutes.
The perceived risk of contagion spreading through breastfeeding has increased the incidence of formula feeding. HIV-positive mothers and those suffering from Hepatitis B are often given no option but to formula feed their babies, even though the latest research shows that under proper antiretroviral drug programmes, breastfeeding is still best during the first 6 months of a baby’s life. Premature babies also arrive in the world before their mother’s milk is ready, and run the risk of contracting an infection called Necrotising Enterocolitis (NEC) in their under-developed intestines through formula feeding. For them, being fed breast milk is crucial to their chances of survival.
Milk banking is all about collecting breast milk from donating mothers and making it available through newborn and baby care facilities. Mothers with excess milk express it into sachets which are immediately sealed and then frozen. Every two or three days the milk is delivered to or collected by the breast milk bank, where it is kept in frozen storage until it is required. Just prior to use, the milk is thawed, poured into sterilised glass baby feeding bottles, re-sealed, and then pasteurised.
Pasteurisation is a heat treatment process to prolong the shelf life of milk, and to remove potential pathogens, including HIV and Hepatitis B. It is commonly used in the dairy industry where large volumes of cows’ milk are treated daily in expensive, purpose-designed machines. The equipment used for breast milk pasteurisation, however, is specially designed to process small batches of milk packed in sealed containers. The holding pasteurisation method is used, where the milk is heated to 63˚C, held there for 30 minutes, and rapidly cooled again. It is then fed directly to the infant, or refrigerated further for use within not more than a few hours.
The heat treatment process does not appreciably reduce the nutrient value and antibody content of the milk, so babies are still getting the best food source Nature has to offer. All milk handled by milk banks is pasteurised, regardless of the HIV status of a donating mother, so absolute consistency in hygiene and safety of the milk is maintained. It is truly a case of motherly love and innovative technology combining to ensure that all babies can have the best start to life that we can possibly give them.