How To Safely Donate & Receive Donated Breast Milk
If you’re considering donor milk for your baby (or you’re producing enough milk to donate!), read our recommendations for how to do it safely and what you should know.
Every mama has a different breastfeeding journey. For some mothers, breastfeeding comes easily. Other moms might face more challenges when feeding their babies and, due to health complications, may seek donor breast milk from another safe source. One thing that’s for certain is both moms and babies benefit greatly from breastfeeding.
Breast milk is especially important for premature babies and babies who are not well. Moms who have trouble providing breast milk to their babies, particularly in these situations, can seek the next best alternative: another mom's milk that was donated and pasteurized by an accredited milk bank.
Mamas may consider donor breast milk when faced with situations such as:
- Low milk production and needs to supplement her own milk with donor milk.
- Adopted or fostered newborns.
- Double masectomy, resulting in inability to produce milk.
- Previous breast surgeries that affect milk supply.
- Diagnosed with insufficient glandular tissue and needs supplemental milk.
- Treated with certain medications that are not recommended for breastfeeding.
- Mother has an infectious illness that could be passed to her baby through nursing.
If you’re considering donor milk for your baby (or you’re producing enough milk to donate!), here's what we recommend for how to do it safely.
Can You Buy Breast Milk?
The short answer is yes, you can purchase donor breast milk.
It is important to note that though donor milk is the best alternative for feeding newborns, it does not have all the same benefits of breastfeeding using mothers' own milk. This is because breast milk changes every day to meet the changing needs of your baby. Preterm milk differs from term newborn milk, and that is different from the milk of a mom whose baby is 3 months old, 6 months old, 12 months old, or weaning.
Receiving donor milk means you may not be getting milk from a mom whose baby is the exact same age as yours. And, because donor milk is pasteurized for safety, some of the protective factors become lost.
Where Can I Get Donor Breast Milk?
Safely buying breast milk is possible. The best way is to go through your doctor and have them refer you to an accredited milk bank. When donor human milk is distributed by milk banks, this is typically referred to as "formal milk sharing". If breast milk is not readily supplied by a mother, a hospital can order pasteurized human donor milk (PHDM) from a Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) certified milk bank.
Here's some important details to know about HMBANA-accredited milk banks:
- They are non-profit. Milk is donated and donors are not paid.
- Donors are strictly screened and tested for diseases like HIV and Hepatits B and C, as well as any blood-borne disease.
- Milk is handled hygenically and pasteurized to kill all known pathogens in breast milk.
- Donors are screened for use of certain prescribed medications and illegal drugs, smoking, use o tobacco products, and regular intake of 2 or more ounces of alcohol per day.
- Donors are also screened for receiving a recent blood transfusion, blood product, organ, or tissue transplant.
- The screening and pasteurization processes are purposely strict to avoid any possible transmission of disease.
Milk banks typically prioritize their supply of donor breast milk for Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) in hospitals or for use at home by mothers who cannot produce their own milk for any number of health reasons. If you live in the U.S. or Canada, make sure the milk bank you work with is certified by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.
What About Informal Milk Sharing?
Some moms give their excess breast milk to parents of babies in need, in an exchange commonly known as informal or casual sharing. Informal, mom-to-mom milk sharing is done within the community - through websites and social media groups dedicated to milk sharing, through families assisting with milk sharing, or via social media connections.
Buying and selling breast milk informally carries a lot more risk because it's not regulated. This means that there's no way to know if the milk you're buying contains infectious diseases or toxins that could harm your baby. If the breast milk you buy was improperly stored, you may end up unintentionally feeding your little one milk that has gone bad or has germs or bacteria.
Here are a few of the most common documented risks to using unscreened, unpasteurized breast milk from informal donors:
- Breast milk is unregulated and untested, which means the milk could have harmful substances like medications, nicotine, alcohol, or drugs.
- Several studies showed that, in some instances, internet purchases of human milk also included cow's milk, water, or other liquids to increase the volume. In fact, there's no way for moms to tell if the milk they purchase is actually human milk at all!
- Repeated freezing and thawing cycles may alter the integrity of the milk's components. There is no way to know how that milk was stored or maintained before it reaches you.
- Another recent study found that infectious agents were present in the majority of milk samples tested. Other studies confirm that viruses and bacteria are commonly found in unscreened milk.
At Medela, we support the recommendations of the ABM and AAP. We understand the importance of receiving donated breast milk from an accredited milk bank to ensure it's absolutely safe for your baby.
Can I Sell My Breast Milk?
Although the practice is not regulated, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Drug Administration recommend selling your breast milk to a milk bank. You can also donate milk to the HMBANA or the National Milk Bank. These organizations will require a screening process to ensure your milk can be distributed to parents and babies in need.
Medela, along with the AAP and ABM, recommends that mamas who have trouble breastfeeding get lactation support and consult with their healthcare providers to decide upon the best course of action for their unique breastfeeding situations. Don't forget to seek out donor human milk only from HMBANA-accredited milk banks if and when you opt to receive donor breast milk!
You can also reach out for extra help and assistance through Ask the LC, which can save you time while addressing common questions and concerns with a board-certified lactation consultant. For even more helpful resources, be sure to download the Medela Family app.