Breastmilk available to every newborn thanks to new technology

ABC Sunshine Coast

By Owen Jacques

Six-week-old Willow falls asleep after having a feed from mother Danielle Martin.

ABC News: Melissa Maddison

Every Australian newborn could soon have access to donated breastmilk — no matter where they are — after scientists pioneered a way to convert the milk into powder without losing its critical life-saving properties.

Key points:

  • Scientists have taken three years to figure out how to process fresh breastmilk into powdered form that can be stored for years

  • It means every newborn should be able to access breastmilk through the newly formed Australian Breast Milk Bank

  • Those involved with the technology say it will save lives

While donor milk banks exist, both in hospitals and in the community, priority is given to premature babies who need shielding from complications or deadly diseases.

Scientists and lactation experts say the new technology means milk can be stored at room temperature for years, allowing it to be stockpiled and to support newborns otherwise unable to access milk.

Enough milk for every baby?

Mother's Milk Bank on the Gold Coast offers donated milk to all mums, but the need for refrigeration limits how much can be sent and how far.

It will now supply its donated milk to the newly formed Australian Breast Milk Bank, which will process it into powder.

From there, the packets containing five feeds can form part of a national emergency reserve and be dispatched with a pouch of clean water to anywhere in the country — even across the world.

Milk bank director Marea Ryan said the technology would save lives.

PHOTO: Australian Breast Milk Bank founder Marea Ryan says the new technology will save the lives of newborn babies and very young children. (ABC News: Jennifer Huxley)

"This is amazing. It's just going to transform the health of babies right across Australia," she said.

The goal of the new national milk bank is to have the equivalent of 33,000 litres of powdered milk in storage — enough for almost half a million feeds for a newborn.

At the moment, if a mum is unable to produce enough milk for their baby — perhaps due to stress or a medical issue — they either access a milk bank or begin using formula.

Ms Ryan said, once the bank reached capacity, any newborn who needed breastmilk would be able to access it.

She estimated that with four breastfeeding women donating one feed per day, the new bank could be fully stocked within two years.

A stressed mum and a hungry bub

Danielle Martin's six-week-old daughter Willow is happily sleeping on her lap. The pair seem content.

Danielle Martin with six-week-old baby Willow, who is finishing one of her morning feeds.

ABC News: Melissa Maddison

But Ms Martin, who lives in the Queensland town of Sarina, said feeding was not so blissful with her son Elijah, now 18 months old.

Within days of what she described as a "traumatic birth", she said her body was not producing enough milk to fill Elijah's belly. Ms Martin was eventually advised to switch to formula.

"He was starving. He wasn't getting enough from me," she said.

"I felt like I couldn't give him the one thing that my body should have been able to give him.

"I struggled to bond with him."

She said from there baby Elijah became constipated and irritable because the formula did not agree with him.

As her new baby battled so did she, eventually grappling with depression.

Ms Martin was not alone. A study of 2,500 women found those who had a negative experience with breastfeeding were more likely to endure post-natal depression two months after the birth of their baby.

In case of emergency, send in the milk

The ready supply of breastmilk could also help those newborn bubs whose lives are touched by natural disasters or, more recently, a pandemic.

Danielle Martin's 18-month-old son Elijah is thriving now, but she struggled to breastfeed him when he was a newborn.

ABC News: Melissa Maddison

Ms Ryan said it was not unusual for mums to produce less milk as a result of stress and upheaval.

She said the goal was to stop babies from having to go without, regardless of whether a family was fleeing a storm or were forced into isolation due to COVID-19.

"When we go through things like floods, droughts or fires, they can have the breastmilk there for these babies under 12 months," Ms Ryan said.

"Because at the moment we have no contingency plans for emergency reserves of this essential food for babies."

What it does, and how it works

University of Sydney Professor Richard Banati said the new technology took about three years for his team to perfect, and it was time to show the world.

Professor Richard Banati, from the University of Sydney, says the ability to convert breastmilk into powder could make Australia a world leader in protecting its young.

Supplied: University of Sydney,

"Australia could definitely become the first country to have absolute food security and food sovereignty for all its newborns," he said.

The milk powder acted as a top-up, so mothers could focus on recovering or building up supply — whatever was needed so they could continue to feed their baby.

The process allowed the milk to be freeze-dried, so the need for cold storage was gone.

"And it can last essentially for years," Professor Banati said.

"If stored at room temperature and under dry conditions, it can be sent around the world."

When a baby is forced to go without