Newborn baby

The gift – mothers’ milk bank

In Children and Family, Community and Relationship, Women's Health by LivingNowLeave a Comment

Like so many great ideas, the mothers’ milk bank was one was sparked as a response to a need.


Marea Ryan has worked as a midwife for 26 years and as a lactation consultant for 10 years. She has witnessed, intimately, the suffering of families whose babies have failed to thrive.

In 2003 she attended the International Lactation Conference in Sydney and was impressed by what she heard, particularly by what the Director of the donor mothers’ milk bank at Austin Texas had to say. The next day Marea observed an exchange that crystallised her desire to do something about a situation she had seen too many times. She wanted to give sick infants a chance of survival. In the nursery of the John Flynn hospital where she worked, Marea saw one mother unable to feed her newborn while another, literally, poured her excess milk down the drain.

Working as a professional photographer with live music performance, Marea was travelling around festivals and live music venues. As she went, she promoted the idea of a mothers’ milk bank and enlisted the help of women artists to raise the $100,000 needed to buy the milk bank equipment. The women were asked to donate a song. As a friend, Marea had supported a friend, Nadia Sunde – ABC radio announcer, musician, songwriter and mother – through the birth of her son Asher. In return, Nadia donated her time in the role of musical director. The result is the CD: ‘The Gift – a woman’s song’.

The CD features all-female vocals and original songs by artists such as aria nominated The Waifs; Mia Dyson, who has a song featured on the soundtrack of the recently released Australian film Look Both Ways. In addition, the CD has tracks from: Elixir – featuring Katie Noonan of ‘george’; country/folk singer Tiffany Eckhardt; soul jazz singer Melissa Forbes, blues singer Lil’ Fi (pictured on the cover), and former Goanna Band members Rose Bygrave and Marcia Howard. All of the songs have been donated to the Mothers Milk Bank project.

Kacey Patrick is a contributing artist and has worked as the marketing director for the CD. As the vocalist with Stringmansassy, Kacey met Marea at the Woodford Folk Festival two years ago. Marea went on to photograph a number of Stringmansassy’s performances and the duo performed at the opening of Marea’s exhibition in Byron Bay. In a further connection, Marea will be one of the midwives at the birth of Kacey’s first child, in November, at the John Flynn Hospital.

Why mothers’ milk?

The benefits of providing mothers’ milk to infants are irrefutable. For optimal nutrition, easy digestibility, immunological protection, provision of growth hormones and assistance in the healing of tissues; there is nothing to compare. Apart from premature birth, the other reason why infants may fail to thrive include : Cardiac conditions, mal-absorption syndrome, short-gut syndrome, renal failure, inborn errors of metabolism, burns trauma, feeding intolerance and infectious diseases (diarrhea, infantile botulism, sepsis). Without mothers’ milk, some infants are simply unable to thrive and develop.

One particular condition that is devastating for preterm infants, and which has shown a connection to lack of mothers’ milk, is necrotising enterocolitis (NEC). This condition causes the lining of the intestinal wall to become inflamed and to die. Between 2000 and 2002 there were 32 cases of NEC in Queensland as well as thousands of cases of preterm and sick infants who required mothers’ milk between birth and discharge from hospital.

The concept of the donor milk bank came into being early last century when wet nurses became more difficult to find. The first donor milk bank in the USA was founded in Boston in 1911. Unwed mothers were paid to provide their milk, which was then pasteurised and given to hospitalised infants. In 1934 a donor milk bank in the Chicago area sent milk to the famous Dionne Quintuplets in Canada.

In the UK, the first human milk bank opened at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, London, in 1939 and others followed. Although many milk banks closed in the 1980’s with the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus, there have been no documented cases of illness through donor milk in the last 30 years.

Many other countries, including Canada, Sweden, France and the Netherlands, have milk banks. In Brazil, postmen collect the milk on their rounds and deliver it to the bank. In Africa, the milk is pasteurised and given back to the mother to ensure that her baby does not contract HIV. It seems a scandal that, until now, nothing has been done to establish this life-giving service in Australia.

Support for the project

Marea has formed the private, not for profit company Mothers Milk Bank and has enlisted the help of many health professionals as she works towards getting the milk bank fully operational. Following a successful UK mode, it is hoped that the milk bank will be up and running by the New Year. The costs associated with the setting up of a milk bank are huge.

Special equipment to test and to pasteurise the milk, facilities for its refrigeration and storage, processes for the screening of potential donors and supply of pumps and bottles: these are a few of the many pieces of equipment and procedures that are essential to the realisation of this goal. It has taken one full year, for instance, to have the milk classified as a food by the Therapeutic Goods Act.


By Teresa Ralton

The project has received support from the Australian Federal Government and from groups such as the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the Australian Breast Feeding Organisation. It has also involved many doctors working in neo natal care and paediatrics. Milk donors are being sought and donations of financial assistance are gladly accepted. For more information about the project and about the CD please visit:

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