Donating breast milk

Donating milk

If you are breastfeeding your baby, you’ll be aware of the immense benefits to your baby’s health, and you can imagine that for tiny, premature, and sick babies, breast milk is invaluable. 

However, in some circumstances, it may not always be possible for a mother of a very premature baby, or sick baby, to be able to provide her milk, e.g., the mother may be unwell or struggling to generate supply.

It’s such a positive thing that donor milk banks exist, where women who are breastfeeding or pumping, can donate their milk, to be used for these babies.

Some women who donate may have an oversupply or feel passionate about wanting to donate their milk, and so pump extra.

Breast milk in storage bags ready to freeze

So why is donor milk so important?

Breast milk is a living substance and is packed full of immunoglobulins. These are antibodies that help to fight illness and disease.

Supplying a baby with breast milk is almost like giving an immunization – a real boost to immunity, even from the very first milk that a baby receives.

In special care units where consultants are increasingly aware of the health advantages of breast milk for these tiny babies, they will encourage, first of all, the biological mother to give her fresh milk. Next in importance would be the biological mother’s frozen milk. Then after that, donor milk. After that, it would be formula.

Studies show that breast milk can help to protect premature babies from a condition called necrotizing enterocolitis. It appears that breast milk provides a special, protective coating, in the baby’s gut, helping to protect the baby from allergens and pathogens.

 All babies can digest and absorb breast milk far easier than formula, which is based on cow’s milk, but particularly very premature babies.

Even if a very young baby is not able to nurse at the breast, small amounts of breast milk can be given via nasogastric tubes. The breast milk will start to develop and strengthen the gut.

So what type of screening of your milk is necessary?

If you decide that you want to be a donor, you will be asked a whole host of health-related questions, and a blood test would also be required.

Your milk is tested for any signs of infection.

If your milk passes the screening test, it is put through a special pasteurization process called Holder Pasteurization, destroying any remaining viruses or bacteria. 

It’s really encouraging to know that even after this process, about sixty per cent of the antibodies are still active.

Baby feeding bottles full of milk with a breast pump in the background

Milk banks are not able to accept milk from mothers who smoke, or who take illegal drugs, or from mother’s who have had a blood transfusion in the past.

It’s also important to be aware that each milk bank may have different policies relating to how the milk is collected.

Some milk banks will arrange for a courier to pick up your milk from your own house. Others may require you to go to the milk bank itself with the expressed milk. It can be useful to look at the policies and decide whether that is practical for you.

It’s true to say that the amount of milk that women donate can vary from person to person, and some milk banks may be able to take a regular, small amount every week. Usually, however, they are happy to receive a one-off larger donation. It’s good to know that every drop of milk is valuable for these babies, and if you are interested in donating, contact your local milk bank and have a good chat with them.

There are some stipulations in regard to donating your milk.

The main one is that your baby needs to be under six months old when you start donating. 

Most breastfeeding women will have established their milk supply before they donate, although sometimes, a woman with an oversupply of milk may donate a large amount, for instance, as a one-off. 

Whichever way you do this, it is a wonderful thing to be able to do.

Review dates, references & further resources

Review Dates

Version 1.1 published in March 2019. Next review date: Jan 2022


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