Donating to a milk bank

Should I donate to the milk bank?

A milk bank collects donations of breast milk. The milk is processed and then used in hospitals to help premature babies and other babies who are vulnerable. Mothers can consider donating if they have a baby who is growing well, if they express easily, and if they meet the standards to donate. Donors must be healthy, must agree to blood tests, must agree to donate a minimum amount, and generally should not be taking medications. Mothers will not qualify if they use illegal drugs or smoke, have a disease that may be transmitted through breast milk, or are unwilling or unable to collect or store the milk correctly.  

A) The history of milk banks

The sharing of breast milk between mothers was recorded as long ago as 1754 BC in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. The first modern milk bank opened in Vienna in 1909.

In 1980, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund said donor milk should be the first alternative if a mother’s own milk is not available (WHO/UNICEF 1980).

Unfortunately, in the 1980s, most milk banks closed because of the risk of transmission of HIV, the AIDS virus, from an infected donor mother to a baby. More recently, milk banks have returned and grown. The risk of HIV transmission is eliminated by:

  • Using screening protocols.
  • Testing the donor’s blood.
  • Pasteurizing donor milk to kill the AIDS virus and other microbes that might harm a baby.

B) Milk bank information

Milk banks exist in more than 60 countries and continue to increase in number. In China, 14 milk banks opened between 2013 and 2016 (Liu 2019). Brazil is the world leader with more than 200. The banks are generally not-for-profit organizations or are run by government agencies.

There are many organizations that oversee and connect milk banks, including:

  • The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA)
  • The European Milk Banking Association (EMBA)
  • The International Milk Banking Initiative (IMBI)

Milk banks not only support the health of babies but actively support breastfeeding through education and awareness (Fonseca 2021).

C) Should I donate?

Pasteurized donor human milk is life-saving. It is generally used in hospitals for premature babies and other vulnerable babies.

Please consider donating your milk if you:

Breast milk donations also help the donors, who join a unique community of wonderful people. Mothers have said donating is a positive and nurturing experience (Candelaria 2018).

Some donors are mothers whose babies died during or soon after childbirth. They donate breast milk as part of their healing journey and to help keep another mother from experiencing a similar tragedy (Carroll 2014; Cole 2017; Oreg 2020; Welborn 2012).

Mothers who are practicing Muslims are also encouraged to donate breast milk as adjustments can be made to accommodate the tradition of milk kinship.

D) Can I donate?

1) Who can donate?

Because breast milk is given to vulnerable babies, donors must meet certain standards. They:

  • Must be healthy.
  • Should not be taking medications or herbal supplements, although insulin, thyroid replacement hormones, creams, ointments, eye drops, and some birth control products are generally allowed.
  • Must agree to blood tests.
  • Must agree to donate a minimum amount of milk.

Donating mothers must collect their breast milk according to certain standards to minimize bacterial contamination.

2) Who should not donate?

Screening of donors varies among milk banks, but donors are generally declined if they:

  • Use illegal drugs or smoke.
  • Have recently received an organ or tissue transplant.
  • Have diseases that can possibly be transmitted through breast milk such as HIV. 
  • Use medications or herbs to increase milk supply.
  • Are unwilling or unable to collect or store their milk correctly.

These standards are higher than those for a mother breastfeeding her own child, because donor milk is usually given to vulnerable babies.

3) How do I get my breast milk to the bank?

You may be able to donate even if you live some distance from the nearest milk bank. Most milk banks have drop-off locations or ways of collecting your milk. Please contact your nearest milk bank for more information.

References

Candelaria LM, Spatz DL, Giordano N. Experiences of Women Who Donated Human Milk. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 2018 Feb 22. pii: S0884-2175(18)30010-8
 
Carroll KE, Lenne BS, McEgan K, et al. Breast milk donation after neonatal death in Australia: a report. Int Breastfeed J. 2014 Nov 29;9(1):23
 
Cole JCM, Schwarz J, Coursey AL, et al. Facilitating Milk Donation in the Context of Perinatal Palliative Care. J Obstet Gynecol Neonatal Nurs. 2017 Nov 24. pii: S0884-2175(17)30463-X
 
European Milk Banking Association (EMBA). Milan: The European Milk Banking Association; 2016 [cited 2017 Nov 26]

Fonseca RMS, Milagres LC, Franceschini SDCC, et al. The role of human milk banks in promoting maternal and infant health: a systematic review. Cien Saude Colet. 2021 Jan;26(1):309-318

Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). Fort Worth (TX): Human Milk Banking Association of North America; [date unknown] [cited 2017 Nov 25]
 
International Milk Banking Initiative (IMBI). [Place unknown]: International Milk Banking Initiative; [date unknown] [cited 2017 Nov 25]
 
Liu XH, Han SP, Wei QF, et al. The data and characteristics of the human milk banks in mainland China. World J Pediatr. 2019 Apr;15(2):190-197

Oreg A. The grief ritual of extracting and donating human milk after perinatal loss. Soc Sci Med. 2020 Aug 28;265:113312 

Welborn JM. The experience of expressing and donating breast milk following a perinatal loss. J Hum Lact. 2012;28(4):506–510
 
World Health Organization / United Nations Infant and Children’s Fund (WHO/UNICEF). WHO/UNICEF meeting on infant and young child feeding. J Nurse Midwifery. 1980 May-Jun;25(3):31-9