Being able to breastfeed my children is an incredible privilege. Breast milk is a very complex and beneficial substance that contains nutrients, growth factors, hormones, enzymes, and other substances that are immune-protective (source). Moreover, human breasts have the astounding ability to produce milk that dynamically responds to changing infant needs (source).
Sadly, many babies do not have the opportunity to consume breast milk and benefit from its components. Before I say more, let me be clear that this post is not intended to bash women who are unable or unwilling to breastfeed their babies. Saying that breast milk is the best food for babies is not a criticism of women who use formula; it is a summation of scientific evidence. As long as you’ve made an informed decision about how to feed your babies, you should feel confident and satisfied.
Some of these babies—namely those who are premature and medically fragile—have a desperate need for breast milk. In fact, it could mean the difference between life and death for them (source). However, many of these babies will do just fine on formula. Among these are some babies whose mothers are unable to breastfeed for various reasons. Some of these mothers are comfortable feeding formula to their babies while others search for ways to get breast milk for their little ones.
Thankfully, donated breast milk is available for this latter group and for the premature babies mentioned earlier.
Methods of breast milk donation
There are a couple of different ways that lactating mothers can donate breast milk.
- Through human milk banks. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America oversees nonprofit milk banks in cities across the U.S. and Canada. Qualified donors (see the qualifications here) donate surplus milk to nearby banks. The banks then pasteurize and test the milk before distributing it to needy infants (typically infants in NICUs).
- Through informal milk sharing. In community settings, many women casually share breast milk with other moms and their babies. Sometimes this is facilitated by organizations like Human Milk for Human Babies or Eats on Feets. Other times it occurs after a lactating mom learns that her neighbor, sister, or friend needs breast milk for her baby. Milk shared through informal means isn’t screened, so it is important that recipient moms use the Four Pillars of Safe Breast Milk Sharing.
Given everything else that moms of young children have to occupy their time and effort, why should they consider donating surplus milk?
- So more babies have access to the nutrients, growth factors, hormones, enzymes, and immune-protective substances in breast milk.
- So recipient moms are not limited to feeding formula to their babies when using their own milk is not feasible.
- So donor moms have the satisfaction of knowing they have played key roles in other babies’ growth.
Breast milk donation isn’t for every lactating mom. Certain health, lifestyle, and social factors mean some women simply shouldn’t donate their milk (see the Four Pillars for details). However, many other women are great candidates but have never donated because they didn’t know it was a possibility!
Both avenues of breast milk donation are great. Donation to human milk banks means very sick, fragile babies will receive the life-saving milk they desperately need. I’m incredibly grateful for moms who donate to milk banks because both of my daughters—for very different reasons—required donor milk in the first few days of their lives (before my milk came in).
Informal milk sharing is wonderful because it allows moms who don’t meet the stringent qualifications of milk banks to donate their perfectly good milk. It also allows moms to help women they know and connect with women in their communities.
I’ve had the incredible privilege of donating milk via informal milk sharing. Though I’ve always had a lot of surplus milk, I’m unable to donate to milk banks because I take medications for a chronic health condition (the research on these meds shows that they are okay for breastfeeding infants). However, I was able to share surplus milk after my first pregnancy with friends who adopted an infant. I was overjoyed to be able to give another baby the precious gift of breast milk! I’m looking forward to sharing my current surplus with another mom.
What’s your experience with breast milk donation? Have you ever donated or received breast milk? If you’re a breastfeeding mom with surplus milk, would you consider donating?
Shared at the following: