Singapore's first breast milk donation bank has been set up by KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) to help babies in need.
This includes premature or sick infants whose mothers cannot produce enough milk for them.
Up to 80 per cent of sick babies in the KKH Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Special Care Nursery have to take formula either entirely or partially.
The milk bank, which was officially launched yesterday, is a $1.37 million pilot project funded by philanthropic organisation Temasek Foundation Cares.
The hospital hopes that around 375 mothers will step forward over the next three years to give their excess milk. This will help supply the needs of 900 babies.
Human milk is considered the best choice for babies, said Dr Chua Mei Chien, who heads KKH's neonatology department. It contains white blood cells and antibodies that protect babies against infections. Fat globules in breast milk also aid in brain development and the development of vision.
She added: "Premature babies have very immature immune and digestive systems.
Checks to ensure milk is safe
How does KK Women's and Children's Hospital ensure that donated milk is safe for babies?
First, it checks to make sure all potential donors are healthy. Mothers who wish to donate excess milk will be interviewed to make sure that they are not engaging in "high-risk" behaviour. This includes smoking, as well as consuming large amounts of caffeine or alcohol.
They will also have to undergo a blood test to check for infectious diseases such as the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, hepatitis B and C, and syphilis.
Donors should have had babies within the last 12 months to ensure that the milk is suitable for newborns, as breast milk undergoes changes over time. Donors express milk at home, freeze it, and then take it to the milk bank. The milk is pasteurised for half an hour at 62.5 deg C, which kills bacteria while retaining its nutritional benefits. It is tested for bacteria before and after the process.
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore has also issued a fatwa, or religious edict, saying that donated milk is permissible for premature Muslim babies to drink.
Some schools of thought believe that drinking such milk would establish ties of kinship that bar marriage.
However, Muis said that such ties are not established in a milk bank situation, as the milk is needed for the baby's well-being. In addition, babies will receive milk from different donors and are not breastfed.
It also said that it is permissible for Muslim babies to consume milk from non-Muslims as such milk serves a medicinal purpose by preventing illnesses and boosting babies' health.
"For these premature babies, exposure to cow's milk can predispose them to a lot of problems."
This includes increasing the risk of developing a serious bowel condition known as necrotising enterocolitis among premature babies, which can cause death.
To set up the milk bank, her team made a study trip to Australia to learn from experts in the field.
For the time being, milk donated under the project is free, as the costs of processing it are covered by the Temasek grant. Dr Chua said that KKH will look for new sponsors once the three years are up.
Mothers who wish to donate extra milk must undergo a stringent screening process to ensure they are healthy. Donated milk will also be pasteurised and tested for bacterial contamination before it is given to babies who need it. The hospital has at least 15 sign-ups from interested donor mothers so far.
Meanwhile, one of those who is eager for the programme to start officially is Madam Nor Adliyah Haryanie, 35. Her son was born on July 5 - two months before the due date - and weighed just 800g. The bank teller did not have enough milk to feed him. "I felt sad and angry with myself... especially when I saw other mothers with a lot of milk, but mine was getting less and less," she recalled.
When first told about the new scheme, she had her reservations, but warmed up to the idea after it was explained to her. "I thought: 'Why not give it a try? If you don't try, you never know'," she said.