The milk of kindness

The pandemic has made breast milk a highly sought-after commodity; difficult to source, despite its widespread natural prevalence

Published: 13th June 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th June 2021 03:56 PM   |  A+A-

lactating mothers mother's milk feeding baby breast breastfeeding

Image used for representation

Express News Service

Last week, Holistic Wellness Coach Garima Batra from Gurugram received an urgent appeal on WhatsApp to source breast milk for a two-day-old infant who had lost his mother to Covid-19. As the mother of a pre-term baby herself, she was acutely aware of the benefits of breast milk for infants. She then shared the message on her groups and before long, a donor was found. This is not an isolated incident as social media is flooded with such requests.

A study published in The BMJ in September 2020 concluded that pregnant women with Covid-19 were more likely to deliver their babies preterm and be admitted to the ICU, and faced an increased risk of maternal death. The babies of Covid-positive women, however, had high chances of surviving the ordeal. Dr Anita Sharma, Physical Therapist, Founder Member of Amaara Human Milk Bank and the first International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in Delhi, ascribes the higher risk of Covid-19 pregnancy deaths to the patient’s lungs being compromised by the  height of the uterus, making the effects of the virus deadlier.

In many cases, a Covid-19 positive mother passes on right after giving birth, leaving the family distraught. They set out in search of breast milk donors for the infant, to make up for this irreparable loss. Described as the ‘elixir of life’, breast milk is prescribed as the best possible diet in the first year of a child’s life. It contains optimal nutrients, and is gentle on the baby’s developing stomach, intestines and other body systems. It provides natural immunity to fight diseases or other health disorders and has been linked to the cognitive and behavioural development of children. Even Covid-19 antibodies are known to pass on through breast milk.

However, the direct peer-to-peer donation is not regarded a feasible solution by the medical community. Dr Geetika Gangwani, the lactation consultant attached to Bengaluru-based Neolacta Lifesciences, explains, “Voluntary donations of breast milk can be problematic because there’s no way of assuring the milk isn’t contaminated.”

For centuries, the upper echelons of Indian society have relied on wet nurses to feed their babies. However, modern medicinal practices have wrought a sea change in this perception. Dr Arun Gupta and his wife were keen to breastfeed their children in the early 80s, but in the small town of Jalandhar where their medical practice was based, they found no support for this endeavour, as formula companies ruled the medical roost and raked in the profits. Dr Gupta’s life-work has been to change this. He set up the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India in the early 90s, which was instrumental in encouraging breast milk donation banks to open throughout the country.

Dr Anita Sharma, Founder of Amaara Human Milk Bank, attached to Fortis La Femme Maternity Hospital in Delhi, explains their role, “Human milk is a rare commodity, as very few mothers donate their milk. Our priority is to give this milk to babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) as they will not survive without it. Preterm babies are more prone to infections of the gut and breast milk provides antibodies and is easily digestible. Unfortunately, we don’t have the resources to provide milk to every baby.”

While donating her expressed milk for a preterm baby in 2015, Wahida Mohideen was surprised to see the sheer number of preterm babies in the hospital who needed breastmilk. She made it her mission to connect willing donor mothers with donation banks. Currently, she is the Leader for La Leche League Chennai, a country-wide breastfeeding support group, and representative of the popular ‘Human Milk for Human Babies India’ Facebook group. She claims that things have changed in the last six years but there is still a long way to go.

Neolacta Lifesciences uses its proprietary technology to produce 100 percent human-milk derived products. They offer frozen liquid, powder sachets and a patented Mother’s Milk Fortifier, as the ideal supplement. “New mothers who are unable to breastfeed, those suffering from inadequate lactation, babies born through surrogacy, or those that are born early and need rapid weight gain can benefit from Neolacta’s products available in over 200 super-speciality hospitals around the country,” explains Dr Vikram Reddy, their Chief Scientific Officer. To offer aid to victims of the pandemic, Neolacta has begun a CSR initiative to donate two weeks’ worth of human milk-derived feeding products to motherless newborns. With citizens stepping forward to help, an increase in the number of breast milk banks and scientific advancement, it seems we are on the right track to face this challenge.

Fact file

  • India bears the burden of a high neonatal mortality rate of 21.7 per 1,000 births (UN’s Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation in 2019)
  • It ranks 5th out of 52 countries on the neonatal mortality rate index
  • A study published in iScience in November 2020 shows the presence of robust Covid-19 antibodies in human milk after Covid infection
  • CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US) guidelines highlight current evidence that suggests breast milk is not likely to spread the virus to babies


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