Although breastfeeding is widely acknowledged as protecting both infant and maternal health postnatally, a partial or complete shortfall of maternal milk can occur for a range of reasons. In this eventuality, the currently available options for feeding infants are screened donor human milk (DHM), infant formula or unscreened shared human milk. In the UK, DHM has only been widely available in specific clinical contexts for the last 40 years, mainly to reduce the risk of necrotising enterocolitis in extremely preterm infants alongside optimal support for maternal lactation and breastfeeding. The Hearts Milk Bank (HMB) was established in 2017 as an independent, non-profit human milk bank that aimed to ensure equitable, assured access to screened DHM for neonatal units. As a result of the generosity of mothers, a surplus of DHM rapidly became available and together with lactation support, has since been provided to families with a healthcare referral. This programme has now been formalised for families facing lactational challenges, and DHM stocks are permanently maintained to meet their needs.
This case series describes the clinical paths of four families who accessed lactation support and DHM from the HMB, along with a description of the process for community provision. To date, the HMB has supported over 300 families. Working collaboratively with key stakeholders, the HMB team has developed a prioritisation strategy based on utilitarian ethical models, protocols that ensure safe handling and appropriateness of use, broader donor recruitment parameters that maintain safety with a pragmatic approach for full term healthy infants, and a process to ensure parents or carers have access to the knowledge needed to give informed consent and use DHM appropriately.
Stakeholders, including parents, healthcare professionals, and milk banks, will need to discuss priorities for both DHM use and research gaps that can underpin the equitable expansion of services, in partnership with National Health Service (NHS) teams and third-sector organisations that support breastfeeding and maternal mental health.