Human Milk Banking – Frequently Asked Questions

The first discussion about milk sharing came from a source we aren’t used to and certainly don’t talk about much. “Wet nursing” was first mentioned in early texts telling the story of Moses, who, after being floated downriver, refused to nurse from an Egyptian nursemaid. Instead, they sent for a Jewish wet nurse and the story only grows bigger from there.

Today, we know how important breast milk is to our infants’ development, and so wet nursing is still practiced. Rather than put another woman’s baby to her own breast, American mothers frequently share bottled breast milk either from household to household or after purchasing the milk from an official human milk bank.


What are the differences between informal and formal milk sharing?

Informal milk sharing occurs between mothers who’ve agreed to share what they have pumped. Sometimes this might be to help a friend who is running low on milk while she is at work, or a mom who doesn’t normally pump and would like to get out, or, in some cases, when a community mother dies.

Formal milk sharing occurs when a lactating woman applies to become a donor, going through testing to prove she is not infected with any blood-born pathogens and that she is not on any harmful medications. Once she is accepted, she begins donating milk to a company who processes and collects fees from parents wishing to obtain breast milk.


Is informal milk sharing dangerous?

Women have been informally sharing breast milk since pumping came into practice. Women generally do not share milk with women they do not know or trust, as these women are nursing their own infants as well. However, you can never be one hundred percent sure of the safety of the breast milk if it has not been tested, and thus, you’re taking a small risk by using this milk. Whether or not it is dangerous is for each mother to decide on her own, but it’s certainly not as safe as purchasing milk from an official donor facility.


What are the formal organizations which I can donate breast milk to?

The best way to find an reputable organization to donate your breast milk to is by visiting this list created by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. This non-profit organization aims to ensure that all human milk banking facilities are meeting quality health standards and upholding the mission to provide human milk for all babies in need. The Association’s belief is that running a human milk bank is an act of service and should never be used to drive profits.


Does pasteurizing my milk take away from its quality or the point of using the milk?

At formal human milk banks, the donated breast milk will be pasteurized, just like cow’s milk is pasteurized at industrial dairy farms. The process of pasteurization kills off any potential bacteria that may have found their way into your donated milk, thereby protecting the smallest babies who receive the majority of donated breast milk: premature infants in neonatal intensive care units. But, breast milk itself is filled with antibodies and proteins that could potentially be harmed by this process, too. Is pasteurized breast milk still worth using?

Yes! While some of the immunological protective factors of human milk are destroyed during the process of pasteurization, the majority are still left intact, meaning pasteurized human milk is still better for babies than infant formula.


Who is using the donated milk?

As previously stated, the majority of donated breast milk is given to premature infants in neonatal intensive care units. Other reasons a person may seek donated human milk for their infant is after the death of the mother, or a low supply in milk in the mother as a result of chemotherapy or other medications.


If the breast milk is donated, why is there a fee to obtain the milk?

Milk banks generally charge fees to obtain breast milk for a number of reasons, none of which relate to making a profit. All fees are used to pay for the employees who help keep the organization running, the pasteurization process, the health screening of donor mothers as well as the general operating costs of owning and operating a building space.


Is everyone eligible to donate their breast milk?

Not all women are eligible to donate breast milk. Ineligibility could be due to medications being taken, diseases, or past history of certain infections. In order to determine if a woman is able to donate, she must contact the closest human milk bank and then complete a phone call with a milk bank organizer. This phone call helps screen out obvious risks and takes very little time.


What should I do if I am interested in donating my breast milk?

After calling your local human milk bank, the organization will have you complete and return a series of forms while they arrange to have your blood drawn and health history checked. Once your paperwork and lab work have been looked over and deemed safe, a coordinator will contact you and help you get started!

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