Breastfeeding mums donated an incredible 750 litres of milk from the start of lockdown to the end of August, helping 247 premature and ill babies, according to the Human Milk Bank service run by the Western Trust.
Now the service, which is the only one across the whole of Ireland, is appealing for more new mums to get involved to help ensure that supply continues over the winter months.
Human Milk Bank co-ordinator Liz Bailie says it is vital that more donors come forward at this challenging time and is calling on pregnant women to think about donating.
"We need mums to register with us before their baby is 12 weeks old," she says. "Breastfeeding is one of the best protections for babies and mothers are encouraged to continue breastfeeding, if they are able and continue to donate.
"Thank you to all our mums who have donated and for the support of the voluntary blood bikers, who continue to transport our much needed donor milk to hospital neonatal units across Ireland."
Here, two mums involved in the project reveal what it meant to them - one who received donations to help her premature babies and the other who supplies the much needed milk.'I'm so grateful to the mums who donate'
Social worker Adele Turbitt (35), from Eskra, Co Tyrone, is married to financial adviser Paul (36) and has three children, Alannah (9), Darragh (7) and Erin (4). Both Alannah and Erin were born prematurely and needed vital donations of human milk to help them survive those early days.
Adele says she had always expected to breastfeed her children but, because the girls were premature, they were in incubators in the neonatal unit and her only option was to express milk instead.
"In my first pregnancy with Alannah I had pre-eclampsia at 28 weeks so I had an emergency caesarian," she reveals. "She was 2lb 10oz. If you saw them all now, you wouldn't know any of them were premature - they're big bruisers!"
Adele's babies were all delivered in Craigavon Area Hospital and when Alannah was born, the nurses talked to her about feeding her with donor milk.
"That was my first awareness of what it was - I'd never heard of it and didn't know anything about it," Adele says.
"Given the traumatic birth, it took a while for my milk to come in - the babies are so small at that age and their tummies are so delicate."
Adele had no hesitation about agreeing to donor milk until she was able to start expressing and even as a supplementary measure afterwards.
Alannah needed to be fed every two hours and it was almost an hour-long drive from their home to hospital, so even when Adele's milk came in, her daughter needed donor milk just to bridge the gap in feeds.
"It was massively reassuring that I knew she would be getting breast milk one way or another," she says. "They asked me for consent and it was natural for me to agree to it, given my plan to breastfeed."
Darragh was fine and she was able to breastfeed him, but history was to repeat itself with Erin, who was born early at 31 weeks.
"I had high blood pressure with her and they were concerned about the placenta, so she was born in an emergency section as well," Adele says.
"It was the same situation again - I expressed until I was able to bring her home, but she was getting top-ups of donor milk."
Adele was delighted when she heard that Laura, one of her neighbours in Eskra, had chosen to take part in the milk donation scheme.
At first a premature baby may need as little as 15ml of milk per feed, so every drop of human milk that is donated is vital, she says.
"Literally every drop was so important - that's why they call it liquid gold because it is so important," she adds. "If people are lucky enough to overexpress, there is definitely a need for this. I am so grateful for the mums who want to do this. I don't know who the donor was for me, but it's such a selfless act to provide milk for other wee babies.
"It's an emotional journey - but for someone who I don't know to help my child, you can't put it into words," Adele says.'It feels special to be able to help'
Solicitor Laura O'Hagan (37), originally from Omagh, is married to Shane who owns the Bridge Tavern in Eskra. They have five children, James (7), Edward (5), twins Oliver and Eva (2) and Ellen, who is 10 weeks. Laura is currently donating milk to the Human Milk Bank.
Laura says that when she was pregnant with James, she decided she wanted to breastfeed after researching its value to both mother and child - but initially found it harder than expected.
"The first two weeks were a struggle for me, with low supply and that's why I sympathise with mums who don't have a good supply," she says.
"The great thing is my husband is so supportive of breastfeeding. The health visitor told him I wasn't eating and drinking enough and every time I turned around he was coming with tea and biscuits and sandwiches!
"Only for him, I wouldn't have been able to do it for as long as I did - I ended up feeding James for a year.
"I didn't have enough milk at first, and he was hungry all the time and crying all the time.
"But I had a fantastic midwife - Veronica Brannigan - and she told me to start pumping and expressing between feeds to build up the supply, and it worked."
But with Edward, it was a different story, she says: "I was concerned I would have the same problems I had with James, but it turned out with Edward I had so much milk that I ended throwing it all out."
By the time Laura learned about the Human Milk Bank, it was too late to join the scheme - the project only takes human milk for up to six months after the birth, after which the composition of the milk changes.
She decided that if she had any more children, she would donate any excess milk to the bank - but as luck would have had it, the next to arrive were twins Oliver and Eva and they needed all the milk she could produce:
"It was just constantly, constantly thinking about milk and feeding.
"I ended up feeding Oliver until he was two, but I am so passionate about breastfeeding that when I got pregnant with Ellen, I knew I was going to donate to the milk bank," Laura says.
"When I had her in the hospital I asked the breastfeeding support worker whether they were still accepting milk donations, with Covid."
Laura contacted the Human Milk Bank as soon as she brought Ellen home from the hospital, filled out a health and lifestyle questionnaire and received a starter pack within two weeks.
Ellen was born on July 28 and Laura began expressing for the Human Milk Bank on August 26.
The excess milk she expresses is frozen and stored in small milk bottles.
"I was a bit daunted by the prospect for trying to produce 100oz, which is the minimum you have to produce," she says.
"But for anyone thinking about doing it, I would say don't be put off by the amount, just give it a go - there is no pressure.
"I just pump for the milk bank first thing in the morning - that is when they say you have the most milk. I only pump once a day because being a mum of five, it's difficult to find time to sit down and express."
Laura has now provided her first donation of milk to the milk bank and is working on her second batch. After she filled the last bottle, she had to wait two weeks to make sure she wasn't symptomatic, then her GP carried out blood tests to check she was healthy and she contacted the milk bank so that they could arrange for a courier to collect the milk from her local hospital in Omagh. The donations are currently being collected by volunteers on motorcycles.
"They take the milk with them to Enniskillen hospital where it is pasteurized and stored," she says.
Laura says breast milk is particularly beneficial to premature babies, helping to protect their gut and prevent abscess.
"The donor milk bridges the gap for the first few days until the mother's milk comes in," she says.
Laura says breastfeeding has become much more normalised in Northern Ireland and she would like to see it become even more so.
"In the hospital we were offered formula but they never mentioned the milk bank," she says. "I think GPs and midwives could talk about it a bit more.
"After I made my donation, so many women contacted me to say that their babies had been premature and needed the milk. It made me feel so special to be able to do it.
"I've heard in the media there is a shortage of donors at the moment and I genuinely think it's because not enough people know about it.
"I'd like to see anyone who is pregnant at the moment thinking about it - don't delay and don't be put off by the volume. If you don't try, you won't know."
To find out more about the Milk Bank and become a donor, tel: 028 6862 8333 or email: TMB.SWAH@westerntrust.hscni.net. To view a video showing a tour of the facility and how donated breast milk is donated to babies, visit the website at www.westerntrust.hscni.net or the Western Trust YouTube channel