A tour of the Human Milk Bank, Oxfordshire

I have wanted to donate milk to the Oxfordshire Human milk bank ever since I had my first baby. My supply was, however, absolutely crazy (it was a surprise to me that producing too much milk can be as troublesome as under-producing at times) and it just wasn’t feasible trying to manage it with extra pumping.

These are the bottles you are sent and here is some of my milk!

With my second baby I felt more in control of my supply after working with the wonderful Oxfordshire Infant Feeding Team and a lactation consultant, and so was thrilled to set myself up as a donor. In fact I was SO ready, when I had my bloods taken just after Fitz was born the midwives took the blood tests needed for me to donate at the same time. I was also so lucky to be given a tour of the ‘Human Milk Bank’ at the JR when I dropped off my supply and meet the people behind this amazing resource.

I gave things three months to regulate and maintain feeding with Fitz and then emailed Amanda who runs the milk bank. She sent me through a starter pack. This included some information on what to do and how to store milk in your freezer, a box of sterile bottles, a freezer thermometer and some labels with my name and details on them. They ask you to use an electronic pump over hand expressing or hand pumping as it tends to keep the milk more sterile so I used my trusty Lansinoh double pump throughout.

I hadn’t really thought too much about it when freezing milk for my own babies, but everything needs to be bug free in donated milk since some of it is going to quite little or poorly babies despite being pasteurised. The last thing any of us wants is our precious milk wasted. It’s funny how the pandemic has made me more aware of hand washing, but this is a key to keeping donated milk clean, so I was always very careful to wash my hands before handling any part of the pumps and making sure I was showered the morning before I pumped for the bank.

SO MUCH MILK! Just one of the carefully labelled storage freezers in the Oxfordshire Human Milk Bank

Although not vital for your own baby the milk bank requests that all donors sterilise their kits before expressing to minimise any bacterial contamination of the milk and so it is as pure as possible (hot, soapy water is ok) it’s a given for me and I was so worried I would have wasted pumped batches! I used a cold water steriliser for my pumping (very quick, cheap and very easy; just plink plonk fizz a milton tablet into the bucket with some water and submerge the parts for 20 minutes and you’re done!) and made sure the milk went straight into the sterile bottles and into the freezer with a label right away, even if I hadn’t filled them up totally. NICE recommends freezing milk to be donated as soon as possible after expressing, so it makes more sense to freeze it straight away then keep it in the fridge until you have a full bottle.

The milk bank itself is a small room made up of large 6 foot high freezers covering half of the room buried deep in the John Radcliffe hospital. The rest of the room is lab space where Amanda and her team test the milk and then pasteurise the batches. Unsurprisingly, everything is tested and retested multiple times. It’s a small room for such a massively awesome enterprise.

There is a rigorous cycle for the milk, from being – received, batch tested, split into bottles, pasteurised, lab results, and then used. While we were chatting several nurses came in to check a folder and take small bottles of milk out of storage and away for use.

It might have been my 5 months post-partum hormones on the whack, but it was humbling to see the donated milk being used like this in an everyday setting. Amanda explained not all milk was used by NICU or even by the JR but was sent out to all sorts of settings, from being sent to other hospitals to being used for the babies of parents undergoing treatment or chemotherapy and to help nourish babies until their mother’s supply was established. 

The pasturiser at the HMB – yes it does have an official name. No i haven’t remembered it.

When you donate a batch of milk it is defrosted and mixed into one large batch before processing. It is then rigorously tested for bacteria levels, fat levels and other tests for safety. Amanda told me that throughout processing the milk is rigorously tested for bacteria levels to ensure the milks safety throughout the pasteurisation process. The milk bank also uses a milk analyser which can tell how much fat and calories the milk contains.

A very clever scanner which tracks every step of every drop of donated milk

If the bacteria levels are too high then the batch sadly can’t be used and is destroyed, which is why hygiene is so important during the pump and store stage. Amanda explained that it costs around £120 to set an individual up when you factor in blood tests, bottle kits and milk testing which amazed me. You forget sometimes the hidden costs of these set ups. They have volunteer drivers who will come and pick up your milk batches for you (they ask for 24/48 bottle batches but as Amanda said, any milk is welcome!) or you can drop it off.

I’m still pumping my second batch fairly sporadically (a lively 3 year old and a baby have not made it easy to find the time for extra pumping) but my aim is to use up all of the bottles in my stash before I stop feeding at around a year.

It really has been such an amazing thing to do and I am so glad it worked out for me this time. I can hugely recommend it if you feel you have space for it in your life and your freezer!

If you would like to donate to the Oxfordshire Human Milk bank please contact Amanda on amanda.wood@ouh.nhs.uk or you can call her on 01865 225507.

 You can also find more information here: https://www.ouh.nhs.uk/maternity/feeding/milk-bank.aspx

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