While the concept of breastfeeding an infant has finally succeeded in scoring a significant victory over the baby food industry, it may still take time to set up a chain of human milk banks for babies who may have lost their mothers or whose mothers are unable to feed them for medical or other reasons. For instance, although the usual prescription is that a child must be breastfed for the first six months, it has been found that working women of the middle classes are not always able to adhere to this. This inability is different from those cases where a fashion-conscious upper class woman has erroneously convinced herself that breastfeeding spoils her figure.
Whatever the reason, it has always been known that where mother’s milk is not available, the next best alternative is the breast milk of another woman. Hence, the time-honoured concept of “wet nurses”, especially for infants whose mothers may have died in childbirth. But, since wet nurses are not always available, or are not suitable for social or economic reasons, milk banks provide the answer. But their establishment entails a highly organised and sanitised process where milk from lactating mothers are collected, pasteurised and stored. As in case of blood banks, the donors have first to be screened.
Ever since the American Academy of Paediatrics established the guidelines for milk banks in 1943, the practice has been adopted by many countries. After the first such bank was opened in Mumbai in 1989, over a dozen similar efforts have been made in other parts of India. The Infant and Young Child Feeding chapter of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics has called for formulating national guidelines for the subject. The government, health experts and the civil society must join hands, therefore, to propagate the concept of milk banks for the sake of lakhs of babies who suffer from malnutrition.