Taipei’s human milk bank

Yesterday I did something that three years ago I would have imagined impossible: I applied to donate my excess breast milk to the human milk bank at the Taipei City Hospital.

I could not produce enough breast milk to feed my eldest son. He was born over two months’ prematurely, and we came close to losing him due to an infection he developed soon after birth. Given how fragile his health was in those first few weeks and months, I was keen to boost his immune system by giving him as much breast milk as possible. But perhaps due to the stress, or lack of sleep, or due to my body not being sufficiently prepared, I could not give him enough of what he needed. So we supplemented with infant milk formula.

If we had been in Taipei, perhaps things would have been different. The Taipei City Hospital established a ‘human milk bank’ in 2004 to collect breast milk and distribute it to children in need. The hospital is not unique in having a milk bank — there are now many throughout the world — but it is unique in being the only one in Taiwan. It is funded by the Taipei City Government, but hospitals throughout the country can apply to receive breast milk for babies in need. The Taipei City Hospital provides milk for free.

But with baby number two I am actually producing more milk than he needs. So yesterday I fronted up for my appointment at the Fuzhou Street branch of the Taipei City Hospital (its maternity hospital). There is a rigorous process for screening potential donors. First I had a phone interview where I was asked about potential illnesses I might have, that included places I had visited previously where I might have picked up diseases (e.g. had I visited Africa or lived in the UK and/or been subjected to Mad Cows’ Disease). Then a nurse reiterated these questions during a face to face interview. This was a little difficult as the questions were in Chinese, but with Mr Taiwanxifu’s assistance I worked it out. It helped that I knew I didn’t have any infectious diseases. Hospital staff were very patient and offered several times to provide an interpreter if required. (I later realised the hospital only recently amended its guidelines to allow foreigners to donate breast milk, after it was criticised for refusing milk from a Cambodian woman. It seems the hospital is now very receptive to receiving donations from foreigners.)

After the interview I had a blood test. The hospital will test my blood, and the two liters of milk that I provided, to see if I am eligible to be a donor.

Two liters of frozen breast milk

Two liters. There was a time when I would have done anything to produce two liters for my son. Now I had it as excess sitting in my freezer, and still there are more bags of candy-colored milk ice stacked neatly in waiting.

According to Ms Xiao, the nurse who interviewed me, the milk is not processed before being given to children in need. (Some milk banks pasteurize human milk donations.) This explains why they are so fussy with milk donations; if anything is slightly wrong with a batch, they either return it to the person who donated it or destroy it. As the milk goes to sick and needy children, e.g. premature babies, it makes sense that they are so cautious with donated milk. From now on, I must follow even more stringent hygiene standards before pumping breast milk to ensure that there is not the slightest possibility of contamination.

Before signing up for this program, I wondered how I would physically transport my milk to hospital. Would I need to go back on a regular basis? I should have realised that convenient Taipei would have a convenient solution. The hospital will give me regulation plastic storage bags. I will then wander down to my local convenience store to post the frozen milk. The hospital will pay for postage. Too easy!

Storage and use of breast milk is sometimes controversial, such as when a London cafe decided to put breast milk ice-cream on the menu. Why is it that we consider it okay to feed ourselves (and children) milk from nameless cows from an unknown pasture somewhere, yet for many people receiving milk from a human being makes us so uncomfortable? And arguably human milk, which tastes sweeter, has a better taste as well.

Let me share something that until now I have not told many people: for a short while, I fed my premature baby with breast milk kindly donated by a lady I met at an Australian Breastfeeding Association get together. I credit my son’s rapid weight gain during his that period in part to the milk she provided, and I know I will never be able to thank her enough for what she did. At least now I can pay it forward; assuming I am eligible to become a regular donor.

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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20 Responses to Taipei’s human milk bank

  1. Wendy Su-Cole says:

    That is really cool that there is this place that offers free breast milk to babies in need. When I was nursing my son, I was producing so much milk that I’d pumped and froze it all. But in the end I never ended up using any of it! I had sooo much of it that went down the drain. Mind you, some of it was over 6 months old.

    Nice of you to pay it forward.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      I haven’t been approved … yet. But hopefully can ‘pay it forward’ soon!

      A shame that you were not able to use the breast milk you had stored. I must admit that with this baby I have the squirrel instinct, and keep wanting to freeze more and more milk away in storage. Reducing milk supply and giving milk away has been a bit of a mental shift for me. I also sometimes put breast milk in my bath, especially if it is leftover from a bottle feed and I don’t want to reheat it. It makes a really good face wash as well.

  2. Wow, that’s cool of you.

  3. Bronwyn Parsons says:

    This is an exciting article and I can appreciate why you are so keen to be involved Serina. It is great to see the progress that some countries are making in their acceptance of donated EBM. I concur the need for stringent screening; but it’s great to hear how it is used. By ‘posting’ your milk I’m assuming that it is in a freezer bag/esky – how long from when it leaves your apartment to arriving at the hospital do you know? And yes, I too fed my nephew as did my sister in law feed my son on occasions – there’s nothing better than breast milk to calm a screaming baby!

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Thanks for your encouragement. The milk is posted through Taiwan’s convenience store logistics hub. Taiwan has thousands of convenience stores — I think there are at least 10,000 although I don’t have recent statistics. They are supported by a fantastic logistics chain. You can order frozen and chilled foods through their stores, and also deliver parcels (normal, chilled, frozen or otherwise) anywhere throughout the island. For example, you could make an ice-cream cake at home, walk it to your corner 7-Eleven and post it to your friend for their birthday. The first time I tried this I posted something from Taipei on Saturday and it arrived down in Tainan (four hour drive away) the next morning.

  4. Thank you. It is so nice to read stories like this. You are a rock star!

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Kind of you. But I haven’t been approved to donate … yet! Hopefully soon because the freezer is getting full.

  5. Cat says:

    I donated my breast milk in the uk. I had to have tests and follow guidelines but I used to donate a couple of litres a week. I feel privelidged to have done this and I hope I helped some one.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Wow. You’re an inspiration. How long did you do it for? We’re you feeding your own baby at the same time? I have just reduced my milk supply because baby was getting green poos from not drinking enough hindmilk. I am a little worried now about not creating too much milk.

  6. Cat says:

    I have 5 children they are 18 yrs old, fed for 2yrs and 8 months 14 yrs old, fed for 7 months 9 yrs old, fed for 16 months she stopped when I was 7 months pregnant with my 4 th child. My 4th child is 7 yrs old and I fed him until he was 1 yr and all the time I was feeding him I was donating my milk. My 5 baby is 6 months now and I’m still feeding him. I did not donate this time as I have been poorly and on meds… But I would definitely do it again!!! Green poo is not always a sign of not getting enough milk! I used to feed my son off both breast all day then through the night only feed from one side. In the mornings I would express off the full side and get a couple of bottles full. That way I only pumped once a day and got loads of milk. I always had a good let down of milk!!! But I really liked that my extra milk went to somewhere worthwhile!!! Over here milk sells for £100 per litre. That’s supplies between hospitals xxxxx

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Wow, that’s an impressive history of feeding all your children. And I can’t believe how much human breast milk costs … although it is worth it. I had heard that there was an increase in wet nurses after the 2008 melamine milk scandal in China. Makes sense.

      With the green poo, I thought it most likely was a sign that I had too much breastmilk and he was getting a lactose overload ( I gradually decreased my milk supply and after three weeks they were a (normal) yellow colour again. So I am a little worried about producing too much and baby getting lactose overload again, but I think I have the balance right now though.

  7. Maru says:

    Say, when did this milk-overload kick in? I mean, how many days/weeks after your little one was born?
    I honestly wish I had more milk right now…and our little one wouldn’t get tired too quickly. -_-

    • taiwanxifu says:

      It takes time and it is different for everyone. They say your milk supply is usually more settled around two months. This was pretty much my experience with baby number two. There are strategies to increase milk supply, based around the supply/demand principle: you’ll produce more if baby spends more time on the breast. You can help things along by expressing milk. Some people believe it works best to express just before feeding. Eating lactogenic foods and getting rest helps, too. Good luck.

      • Maru says:

        Ah, thank you for all the advice!
        Okay, our little one isn’t even 1 month, so I guess I’ll need to be patient.
        About the food, I guess I’m already eating lactogenic foods since I’m still living in one of those confinement hotels.
        I’m using a “milking-machine” in-between baby feedings, so I hope the milk will increase over time.
        It’s just the baby gets tired too quickly while breast feedings; but I guess that gets better later as well.

      • taiwanxifu says:

        Based on my experience, babies tend to go through a growth spurt in the first month or so. It is normal for them to be hungry a lot, especially late afternoon/early evening because that is when your milk supply is the lowest. Some mothers feel that they are feeding constantly around 6pm or so and fret they don’t have enough milk, when it is really just part of the normal newborn feeding cycle.

        Are you feeding baby during the night? Prolactin, which is important for creating breast milk, is highest at night. With first baby I subscribed to the ‘don’t feed baby at night’ principle for a while; milk supply went down and only really increased when I re-introduced feeding through the night. (I also completely stopped nursing and then relactated, but that is another very long story.)

        It is normal for babies to get tired from feeding. It is not just that the physical action is tiring for them … the milk itself makes them sleepy. (Which is why, I guess, some sleep experts recommend drinking a warm cup of milk before bed.) A healthy baby will not starve him/herself. And yes, baby will get less tired feeding and become quicker at it with time. Perhaps you could ask to see a lactation consultant if you want expert advice. Do they have one at your confinement hotel? Or perhaps read the book ‘Making More Milk’, which is very informative.

        How do you find living in a confinement hotel? Do you enjoy it? Are you bored? Are the staff helpful? What is the food like?

      • Maru says:

        I’m not yet feeding in the night (except for the first 3 days after birth, in the hospital) but will of course do so once I’m back home from the confinement hotel. But yes, I heard the milk production is the highest in the night. I have the feeling my milk is slowly but surely increasing but baby’s hunger seems to increase a tad bit faster than my milk supply…

        They do have some kind of nurse that looks after the mother and if there are any questions or something, I could ask them (though only in Chinese and that’s where it becomes kinda difficult. I mean, I understand most of the things they are talking about or asking or I can guess it and answer but I don’t know that much of that kind of vocabulary yet.). They also have some kind of list where one needs to write down the feeding times (twice, one time or the baby nurses, the 2nd time for the mother nurse) and how much milk was pumped out as well. Those mother nurses check on those lists etc. and ask questions etc. So I guess, they know a few things about lactation.

        The hotel is really not bad (staff, nurses etc. are all very friendly and capable, good service etc. The only thing I’d say the could improve is, the hotel is a tad bit old so some things (like the floor) should be renovated (it’s still good, it’s just you can see that this hotel has been around for quite some time). Other things are just some minor details (the if-this-would-be-my-home-I’d…-kind of details).
        I do enjoy it, though I miss to go out in the sun and I miss my husband(he can’t come here at daytime, only after work (he basically works every day, even Sunday and on Holidays mostly as well)). :((
        I’m surely not bored (so far have not been bored) with the baby and if I don’t have the baby, I’m just sleeping most of the time…and pumping milk.
        Staff is great, as said above, and food is good, though after almost 3 weeks here, it gets a bit repetitive but wouldn’t it everywhere? It surely is healthy food though (many of those dishes are actually cooked by my mother-in-law at home as well (and a few easy ones by me as well).

      • taiwanxifu says:

        Sounds like you are being looked after well. I have never stayed in a confinement hotel, although I visited one near me out of curiosity when I was preparing to do zuo yuezi. One thing that put me off is that they discourage sibings from being with baby because of few of infection. Since I have just got a cold transferred from my toddler, I sort of understand. It has been difficult separating a sick toddler from the baby (my eldest just loves his little brother and keeps wanting to pat and hold him), but overall I think the opportunity for them to bond together is probably more mportant.

        With feeding at night, I am sure you will make an informed decision based on what suits you. Does baby sleep through the night or do the nurses feed him during the night? It will make a difference to your milk supply, but by the sounds of it things are improving anyway. Things do get better after the first month.

        Take care and enjoy all the healthy food. I assume they are giving you lots of sesame chicken (ma you ji).

  8. a. says:

    I had never heard of this kind of “bank”, much less expect this kind of service in Taiwan. It’s certainly a facet of Taiwan we don’t often get to read on other foreigner’s blog, haha.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Yes, this is definitely not something many foreigners have blogged about. In part this is because up until two months ago foreigners were not allowed to donate their breast milk. So maybe I will be the first (I haven’t verified this, I’m just guessing).

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