Bioethics Blogs

Technologies of Care: Administering Donated Breast Milk in a South African Neonatal Intensive Care Unit by Miriam Waltz

This is the third installment of the series from the University of Cape Town’s First Thousand Day Research Group. My research traces out the pathways of donated milk from donor to recipient in a state neonatal unit in South Africa (Waltz 2015), to show how care and technologies are interwoven in complex and sometimes surprising ways.

Breastfeeding is widely seen as the best infant feeding option for mother and baby. The dominant discourse in both the public and the medical realm presents breastfeeding as a natural behaviour, best for babies, best for mums. In a recent series, The Lancet claims that increasing breastfeeding worldwide could prevent over 800,000 child deaths every year (Victora et al. 2016). This position is reflected in state policy and official declarations of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF. In South Africa, after a decade of promoting the use of formula milk to offset possible vertical (mother to child) HIV transmission, the state re-committed to facilitating breastfeeding in the Tshwane declaration of August 2011 (see also Doherty et al. 2010 for the revised WHO guidelines on breastfeeding). Breast milk is even more important in the case of premature or low birth weight babies, who are highly susceptible to necrotising enterocolitis, (a serious gastrointestinal condition) if fed on formula milk (Neu and Walker 2011). Here, breast milk is critical in securing life; ‘breast is best’ (Murphy 1999). Where the birth mother’s breast milk is not available, donated breast milk is the best alternative.

My research on the milk’s trajectories was wide-ranging. I interviewed donor mothers; members of milk banks associated with the collection, testing, packaging and distribution of donated milk; hospital staff responsible for its prescription and distribution; and mothers whose infants were receiving donated milk.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.