The Hearts Milk Bank – the bank with a difference

In this guest blog, we hear from Hearts Milk Bank as to why donor breastmilk is so important for preterm and sick babies, and how this new milk bank will work to ensure that more vulnerable babies get the milk they desperately need.

Breastmilk is crucially important for preterm and sick babies as it offers vital protection from infection and inflammation and supports growth and development. For some babies this can mean the difference between life and death. Whenever possible it is best for babies to receive their mothers’ own milk, but when this isn’t possible, the best alternative is donor breastmilk from a human milk bank as recommended by the World Health Organisation, European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The provision of donor breastmilk varies throughout the UK and inequitable access exists in many areas, especially in England and Wales. Milk banks work like the blood transfusion service – donors are carefully screened and milk is checked and heat-treated to ensure it is safe. The milk is then sent to hospital neonatal units.

Early in 2017, the Hearts Milk Bank (HMB) will start operating, with the aim of ending the current postcode lottery for donor breastmilk faced by parents and their babies. Most neonatal units in London and the southeast currently have no, or only intermittent, access to local supplies of fully screened and specially heat-treated donor milk.

Described as ‘the bank with a difference,’ the not-for-profit HMB is the brainchild of Dr Natalie Shenker and Gillian Weaver, who recognised that financial constraints within the NHS were impacting on the availability of donor milk. Natalie is an Oxford-trained doctor and breast cancer researcher at Imperial College and Gillian is a milk banking expert with almost 30 years’ experience of working with milk banks around the world. Together, they have recruited an invaluable team of supporters with expertise across healthcare, finance, marketing and organisational development, former donors and parents of preterm infants.

The HMB will begin recruiting donors in the coming weeks. It will be sited in state-of-the-art premises in Hertfordshire, which are ideally located for transport links to the whole of the southeast. With the support of the fantastic SERV volunteer motorcycle couriers, donor milk will only be a couple of hours ride away from even the most distant neonatal units in the region.

Donors will be mainly recruited via the development of innovative ‘Expresso Clubs’ where breastfeeding mothers can come together to learn about donating their milk, be screened and blood tested as well as receive help from trained lactation and breastfeeding experts. Fantastic coffee will of course be available too – decaf varieties will be their specialty!

Whilst the HMB is very close to becoming operational they still need help to ensure there is capacity to start operating quickly. A crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo (visit and donate at therefore aims to fund the purchase of essential equipment. The campaign ends in less than a week – if the target of £50,000 can be reached, it will release loan funds to enable the development of other goals, including:

  • specialist lactation consultancy to support bereaved mothers both in hospital and at home
  • the formation of a collaborative network of breast cancer researchers, aiming to understand how breastfeeding reduces the risk of a mother developing aggressive breast cancer
  • a training centre for milk bank and neonatal staff including the development of online training

Please visit our website (, follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and hear podcasts about the HMB, crowdfunding campaign updates and donating breastmilk on Crowdcaster (

The UK Association for Milk Banking ( has long campaigned for the formation of a national milk bank service. Natalie and Gillian aim to work with milk banks across all regions to ensure that neonatal units throughout the whole of England and Wales have equal access to assured supplies of safe donor milk. Simply put, they want to ensure that donor milk will be available for all babies who could benefit from it.