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How Does Breast Milk Donation Work?

Erica Loop
July 16, 2015

Separate fact from fiction when it comes to this centuries-old process. Find out what to do If you have extra milk you can donate or if you're in need of milk for your baby.

Whether you're making more milk than your baby needs or you're in need of a breast milk donation for your baby, understanding the process of breast milk donation is a must for many moms.

Who Can Donate?
"Donors are generally healthy, lactating women who have more milk than their babies need," says Naomi Bar-Yam, executive director of Mothers' Milk Bank Northeast. She notes that they also receive donations from bereaved mothers. "Sometimes this is stillbirth of a full-term baby and the mother pumps milk after the baby's passing. Sometimes, it is a mother whose baby was born premature and has been in the NICU for some time, and the mother has been pumping and the baby does not survive."

Mother's Milk Bank Northeast, like other accredited banks, screens all donors. Their screening process includes a phone interview, a complete health history, a blood test and a consent form. Candidates must be in good health, not regularly using medications or herbal supplements and are either currently nursing or can nurse and donate at least 150 ounces during the lactation period.

Rest assured that when you receive donated milk from an accredited donor bank, the milk is screened for your baby's safety. "All donors are thoroughly screened for social behaviors (like smoking and drinking) and different diseases and viruses," says Amanda Nickerson, executive director of the International Breast Milk Project and a former breast milk donor.

What Happens to the Milk?
According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), banks process and pasteurize the milk in a sterile setting. The banks typically pool and mix donations from three to five mothers at once. The milk is then poured into glass bottles and pasteurized to eliminate any potential bacteria. Samples are lab-tested to ensure that they are free from contamination. After passing this rigorous process, the breast milk is frozen and ready to go.

Who Gets the Milk?
Bar-Yam notes there are many reasons why a baby would need donor milk, but says, "mostly, we provide milk for premature and sick, hospitalized babies. Sometimes babies have digestive or other disorders, allergies or sensitivities such that formula causes them to be quite sick." Donor milk may also go to babies whose mothers are unable to nurse. "There are also medical reasons a mother may not be able to nurse her own baby -- medications and other medical treatments that preclude breastfeeding, such as mastectomies before the birth, to name a few," says Bar-Yam.

Donor milk may also help less fortunate infants abroad. The International Breast Milk Project helps babies both in the U.S. and in South Africa. "As far as who receives the donated milk -- in Africa it is used in both an HIV/AIDS orphanage and also in NICUs," says Nickerson. "In either instance, the milk is given to the most vulnerable infants. In Cape Town, that is often premature babies who have been orphaned, and in Durban it tends to be HIV-positive babies. In the U.S., the milk is used by Prolacta to make the only human milk fortifier. That fortifier is used in NICUs in the U.S. for premature babies."

Should You Donate?
Not sure if donation is right for you? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you lactating?
  • Do you have excess milk to donate after feeding your own baby?
  • Do you want to help other mothers and babies experience the health benefits of breast milk when they otherwise couldn't?
  • Can you follow the milk bank's rules and policies?
  • Do you have time to drop the donated milk off at your local milk bank or ship it (if the bank allows this)?

Where Can You Get Donated Milk?
What happens if you're on the getting, and not giving, side of breast milk donation? Bar-Yam says, "All nonprofit milk banks in the U.S. and Canada are accredited by and operate under the safety guidelines of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America." Accredited banks screen donors and follow pasteurization procedures. You can find a location in your area on the HMBANA website.

Erica Loop is a mom, parenting writer and educator with a master of science degree in child development. When she's not teaching, she's busy creating kids' activities for her blog Mini Monets and Mommies.

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