The Importance of Donor Milk
8m read

The Importance of Donor Milk

Having access to donor breast milk has amazing benefits for moms and babies alike, especially now that the national formula shortage continues to aggravate.

As the national formula shortage continues to aggravate desperate parents across the country, the crisis is shining light on a topic rarely discussed: donor human milk. 

Feeding bottle and breast pump

Although it isn't an option for every mother, having access to donor breast milk has amazing benefits for moms and babies alike. Infant formula is a wonderful substitute for mothers who cannot or choose not to breastfeed, bur as store shelves continue to stay empty amidst the formula shortage, some moms are turning to donor milk banks to provide nourishment for their babies.

Breast milk benefits infants.

Human milk helps babies growth and thrive.

Although the "Breast is best" campaign is taking a back seat to the many other options for feeding infants, the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of life. Despite this, exclusive breastfeeding simply isn't a guideline that all parents can follow.

Not all mothers can breastfeed.

Sometimes, a lactating mother will have an inadequate milk supply and need to rely on formula or donor human milk to satisfy their baby. Other moms might simply choose not to breastfeed, for a wide variety of valid reasons, and need to rely on other methods of feeding. Adoptive mothers might try to induce lactation, but if this isn't possible, donor milk or formula might be used. 

Mother Holding Arms Breastfeeding Baby Home

Infant formula was created to mimic a mother's milk and provides a healthy alternative to breast milk. Breast milk, formula, or a combination of the two are an infant's primary source of nutrition for the first year of life and are responsible for a baby's growth and development. There are benefits to both breast milk and formula, but the national formula shortage has forced many parents to look for alternative ways to feed their babies.

This is where donors and milk banks can be extremely beneficial - mothers who are unable to find the formula their baby needs might choose to rely on donor human milk to ensure that their baby is taken care of, even during troubling times when formula isn't readily available.

Interest in using donor human milk is on the rise in recent months, but milk sharing has been around for a long time. There are two ways parents can access donor breast milk: through a milk bank, or through informal milk sharing.

The benefits of human donor milk for preterm infants.

Breast milk is important for premature babies because of their immature digestive system. Infants who are born premature and are fed formula are more likely to develop necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a condition where some of the bowel tissue dies.

It can be difficult to feed a premature infant, especially if they are in the neonatal intensive care unit and the mother is separated from her baby. Babies that are small or have a low birth weight might experience challenges breastfeeding as well. Using donor human milk can enable premature infants to avoid infections during their stay in the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital.

Giving low birth weight infants or infants born prematurely breast milk or donor milk can help protect their digestive systems from infections while providing key growth hormones and nutrients to help them thrive. Breast milk and donor milk also help with a baby's neurological function and is much easier to digest than formula.

Mothers might also gain access to human milk fortifiers, which are added to breast milk, and serve as an important source of nutrition for premature babies. It adds calories to plain milk and is beneficial to an infant's gut health.

Two ways to access donor milk.

Parents can get breast milk from milk banks.

Accredited milk banks are great resources to get donor human milk from. Through milk banks, donors go through a screening process that involves interviews and questionnaires. The milk that is donated is pasteurized and and tested for bacterial growth. Because the screening at donor milk banks in North America is so rigorous, the risk of utilizing donor milk from an accredited milk bank is low.

Milk banks screen donors by:

  • Running blood work to check for diseases such as HIV (which can be transmitted through human milk).

    Blood tests can help rule out diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis B that can pass through the breast milk and become dangerous to infants, especially premature infants who are at high risk for infections and disease.

  • Getting the milk donor's detailed medical history, including information on what vitamins, supplements, and medication the person is taking.

    Milk donors must be honest in disclosing any medications they are taking that might potentially compromise a baby's health.

  • Obtaining a letter from the donor's physician to verify the person's medical history.

    Infants, especially preterm infants or infants with low birth weight, are at high risk of contracting infections and disease because of their immature immune system. When breast milk is not available from the mother, using donor milk can be a great option, as long as it is done safely. Human milk banking provides a great service to mothers who would like to feed their babies breast milk instead of formula.

  • Getting information on drug and alcohol use that might disqualify a person from donating breast milk.

    Because of their immature immune and digestive system, a baby is more sensitive to drugs and alchohol that are in a breastfeeding mother's milk. Newborn babies are at high risk for health complications through contaminated milk, which is why human milk banking from an accredited organization requires milk donors to go through such a long screening process.

This thorough review process helps ensure that a donor's personal and medical history allow for safe milk donation. Donor milk can be potentially dangerous to infants if a certain disease passes through the milk. The use of donor human milk from an accredited human milk bank is the ideal way to get breast milk safely.

Because of the rigorous review process that a milk donor goes through, human milk from milk banks is not cheap. It might cost women anywhere from $3-$5 per ounce of milk, which makes feeding their baby a big expense. A baby can drink 32 ounces of milk or more just in one day, which means obtaining donor human milk isn't an option for every family.

If a baby has a documented medical need, health insurance companies might cover the cost of obtaining donor milk for an infant. Some milk banks also offer financial assistance to needy families. Due to the current formula shortage, some milk banks are even giving out small amounts of donor milk for free.

Parents can get breast milk from milk sharing.

Informal milk sharing is also a common practice for mothers who want to feed their baby breast milk but are unable to provide it on their own. Informal milk sharing does not require the same rigorous review process for donors that milk banks require. Many mothers care deeply about feeding their babies breast milk, but cannot afford going through milk banks.

Some commonly used websites for milk sharing are Human Milk 4 Human Babies and Eats on Feets. Both of these organizations have local chapters throughout the country where mothers can get access to donor milk for their baby.

One positive aspect of informal milk sharing is that it is usually a free service. Families who receive donor milk sometimes offer to pay for supplies or services for the donors. Informal milk sharing is a wonderful way to ensure that babies are fed and have their nutritional needs provided for. It is significantly cheaper than going through an accredited milk bank, making it more accessible to women from all types of families. Many families care about feeding their infant breast milk, and by using informal milk donors, this can become possible no matter what a family's financial situation is.

Informal milk sharing does come with its own unique set of risks, though. Because the donors do not need to go through a lengthy screening process to donate milk, the biggest risk in using informal donor milk is the possible transmission of pathogens or contaminants in breast milk (HIV, HBV, Syphilis, and Rubella are a few serious diseases that can be passed through a mother's milk). Breast milk can also become contaminated during the storage process, which raises the risk of the milk harboring dangerous bacteria.

Safety is key.

No matter how donor milk is obtained, parents should prioritize the safety of their infants above all else. 

Breast milk bottle and breast pump

The only way to truly ensure safety in accessing donor human milk is for mothers to go through an accredited milk bank or a hospital. However, due to the cost, this isn't an option for all families.

Mothers should make an informed decision when it comes to using donor milk.

Women should make an informed decision when it comes to their baby's health and nutrition. Mothers should research how to find reputable places to obtain donor milk, and conduct a thorough review of whatever organization they choose to go through. Women might choose to get donated milk from a trustworthy family member or friend, or from a local parenting group on social media.

Women can also ask that a donor go through a private screening process, including an interview and lab testing. Vulnerable infants, such as premature babies or babies with food allergies, should definitely require some type of screening from a possible donor.

How milk is stored is also important for safety.

There is evidence that high levels of bacteria have been found in breast milk that was stored improperly. For reference, breast milk can be stored at room temperature up to 4 hours, in a refrigerator up to 4 days, and in a freezer for 6-12 months. Adhering to these storage rules ensures that the milk will retain valuable nutrients and not become contaminated with harmful bacteria.

Donor milk provides babies with the nutrition they need.

The importance of donor human milk has become more obvious in recent months as the formula shortage plagues the country. Through accredited milk banks or informal sources, breast milk can and should be accessible to all families who desire to feed their infant human milk in addition to or instead of formula.

Meet Our KeaMommy Contributor: Kaitlyn Torrez

I’m Kaitlyn Torrez, from the San Francisco Bay Area. I live with my husband and two children, Roman and Logan. I’m a former preschool teacher, currently enjoying being a stay at home mom. I love all things writing, coffee, and chocolate. In my free time, I enjoy reading, blogging, and working out.

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