One of Dr Natalie Shenker’s proudest moments at the Hearts Milk Bank was helping a woman who was almost housebound because she was expressing up to four litres of milk a day.
The Hearts Milk Bank screened the woman for infections and then started collecting the excess milk. With help from the milk bank’s lactation consultant, the woman gradually reduced the amount she was expressing until she could stop donating altogether.
“That’s unusual but it’s not as unusual as we thought,” Dr Shenker says. “There’s a whole range of normal breastfeeding – some struggle to produce at all and some could happily feed triplets. We don’t really understand the physiology of why that happens.”
The lack of available research is part of the reason Dr Shenker founded the Hearts Milk Bank, which she registered as a community interest company or a company committed to using profits for public good, in 2016.
The company, based in Hertfordshire, currently has 60 donors whose milk is distributed to NHS hospitals in London and the South-east just like the blood transfusion service. It is one of 16 milk banks in the UK, including a nationally-funded service in Glasgow, one in Chester that supplies up to 50 hospitals and one in Bristol that supplies the South-west.
Many babies and parents face what Dr Shenker calls a “postcode lottery” when they need breast milk. She approached co-founder Gillian Weaver to start an alternative service after the NHS-funded milk bank Weaver had run at the Queen Charlotte and Chelsea Hospital for 25 years was threatened with closure. Without the Hearts Milk Bank, many neonatal units in London would only have intermittent access to local supplies.