Singapore launches first human milk bank to feed premature or sick infants

Singapore today launched the first human milk bank in the country, which will help mothers who do not have enough breast milk to feed their premature or sick infants. With this launch, Singapore has joined 40 countries of the world which operate official milk banks.

The aim of the bank is to provide a ready supply of safe, pasteurised human breast milk, donated for premature and sick neonates of mothers who may be unable to provide adequate breast milk to support their babies’ requirement.

This programme is part of a new three-year pilot between KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) and Temasek Foundation Cares. Halimah Yacob, former Speaker of Parliament launched the programme today.

First human milk bank in Singapore
The aim of the human milk bank is to provide safe, pasteurised breast milk from donors to the babies. Photo courtesy: indusparent

Breast milk is the best form of nutrition for babies in the early days of their lives, containing all essential nutrients and qualities needed to optimise health and developmental outcomes.

The bank is expected to benefit 900 babies by recruiting around 375 mothers who are willing to donate their excess supply of breast milk to benefit vulnerable premature and sick babies who are receiving neonatal care in KKH, Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and National University Hospital (NUH) over a three-year period. The programme aims to attract eligible mothers who are ready to come forward to help in a good cause by donating their excess supply of breast milk.

Stressing on the importance of breast milk, Dr Chua Mei Chien, Director, Temasek Foundation Cares Donor Human Milk Bank Programme, and Head and Senior Consultant, Department of Neonatology, KKH, said, “Breast milk is the nutritional standard for infants in the first six months of life, and it contains white blood cells and antibodies that protect the baby against infections and improve their chances of survival. The fat globules in breast milk enable better brain development as well as development of vision.

She added, “Some mothers, due to preterm or complicated deliveries, or other pre-existing conditions, are unable to meet the breast milk requirement for their babies. Providing safe, pasteurised breast milk from donors to these vulnerable babies allows them to benefit from this ideal source of nutrition while also significantly improving their chances of development and recovery.”

Notably, premature and sick newborn babies have immature and weak digestive systems, making them prone to feeding intolerance. The provision of safe, pasteurised donor breast milk is aimed at reducing the risk of potential complications, while optimising their immunity, development and overall health.

An average of about 350 very low birth weight infants receive neonatal intensive care in Singapore’s public hospitals each year. In KKH, despite best efforts to support breastfeeding, up to 80 percent of sick neonates in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and Special Care Nursery (SCN) have to receive formula milk meant for premature babies, either exclusively or partially, during their hospital stay, due to inadequate supply of breast milk from their own mothers.

The babies eligible for this programme must also be born prematurely at less than 32 weeks of gestation, weigh 1800 grams or less at birth and are at a high risk of being diagnosed with necrotising enterocolitis – a gut condition where the intestines can become damaged due to death of tissue. 

There are many human milk banks across the world, including South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Brazil has an extensive network of 210 milk banks. In 2011, 165,000 litres of breast milk were donated by some 166,000 mothers, and provided to nearly 170,000 babies. There are 16 milk banks in North America for helping mothers to feed their children. In India, first government run human milk bank has been set up at Lady Hardinge Medical College in New Delhi.