Every large town in the old East Germany used to have one. Now, milk banks — where mothers can donate or receive breast milk — are to be reintroduced across the country.
The original centres were opened because the former communist regime struggled to produce sufficient formula milk for nursing mothers. Women able to produce more milk than their babies needed donated the surplus to the banks for mothers with insufficient natural milk.
Few of the East’s donor centres survived the collapse of the old regime. But with medical opinion now emphasising the benefits of breast milk over formula, the health ministry is reviving the idea and is setting up new banks in hospitals across Germany.
Some prodigious feats of human milk production have already been recorded. Last week, the newspaper Bild devoted most of its back page to a woman it described as a true “mother of the nation”.
Susan Schulze, 31, has not only fed her daughter Sophie for seven months but has also provided 50 gallons of milk for other babies. The paper said she had set a fine example as “a woman with tremendous heart and much to give”.
It can be a lucrative business for the producers, who get paid about £2.30 a pint. Some continue providing milk after their babies have been weaned.
Schulze, from Leipzig, said: “I’ve made good business with my milk. I’ve put the money in a bank account for when Sophie gets older.”
Donor mothers are screened for infectious diseases, including HIV, then equipped with electric pumps with which to express the milk at home. They store this in their refrigerators until it is collected by hospital staff. It is then pasteurised before being given to mothers who are unable to produce enough milk of their own.
“The amount each woman can give varies,” said Gerhard Jorch, the head of the children’s clinic at the University of Magdeburg. “Some can give up to one litre a day. We ask the donor mother to empty her breast four to six times a day. They usually keep doing this for between six months and a year, although some keep doing it for longer.”
Although the service is more expensive than providing artificial milk, Dr Jorch is convinced that it is more beneficial to the infants.
One donor, Irene Bauer, 26, said: “I take milk about three times a day and put it in bottles in the fridge. It’s collected once a week, although some mothers have their milk collected more regularly.
“The milk I donate to the hospital is enough to feed two other babies in addition to my own. We’re all regularly tested. The utmost caution is taken to ensure that there are absolutely no risks.”
Donors say they are not doing it for the money, but because they want to help other mothers and babies. “This is a wonderful thing to be able to do,” said Cornelia Muller, 32.
A spokesman for the health ministry said it was encouraging the opening of more milk banks. “Mother’s milk has become so much in demand it is now the only type offered in premature baby wards where there are milk donor centres,” he said.