Ask the experts: Milk banking

By Published On: August 27th, 2012

For the most fragile babies, those born prematurely before 35 […]

For the most fragile babies, those born prematurely before 35 weeks gestation, breastmilk is truly life-saving, says Kim Updegrove, RN, CNM, MSN, MPH,executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin, and president-elect, board of directors for Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). Today, she explains how healthy breastfeeding mothers can save and donate their milk, which once safely processed, saves thousands of premature infants from debilitating and life-threatening gastrointestinal infections every year.

Baby with milkWhat is donor human milk and why is it important?
Donor human milk is donated breast milk from a healthy nursing mother that is tested and heat processed to make it safe for the smallest of babies, and it is a life-saving gift for sick and premature babies. Mothers of premature babies are often not able to produce enough milk for their babies who are in a neonatal intensive care unit for months sometimes. When they are not able to provide enough breast milk, health care providers prescribe donor human milk. Human milk is best for all human babies, but it is life-saving for premature infants. Premature babies need human milk to grow and thrive. These vulnerable infants face a much higher risk for devastating intestinal infections if they receive infant formulas instead of breast milk. Human milk fights infection while providing ideal nutrition. It contains growth hormones that help babies develop, antibodies to fight disease and infection, and also protects against allergies. It is truly a perfect food.
What is milk banking?
Milk banking in the non-profit world means the process of collecting, pasteurizing, storing and distributing donor human milk. The term milk bank also is used by a for-profit milk bank, and by collection sites for that milk bank. It can also refer to a hospital freezer room where moms with babies in the hospital can keep their own milk. In North America, there are twelve non-profit milk banks such as ours, the Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin. Our mission is to provide donor human milk to premature and ill infants in neonatal intensive care (NICUs). In Austin, we’ve pioneered the nutritional analysis of breastmilk, which is exciting because we can provide pasteurized breast milk with very specific amounts of calories, proteins, fats and carbohydrates to meet the specific needs of sick babies.
Who can donate breastmilk, and how?
Mothers in good health who are currently lactating or breastfeeding, who have given birth within the last year and have surplus milk are excellent milk donors. Our donors should be:

  • Willing to undergo a blood test at the milk bank’s expense
  • Not regularly using medication or herbal supplements (with a few exceptions)
  • Willing to donate 100 ounces of milk initially and continue pumping to donate as you are able (minimum donations will be different if you are shipping milk)

We also receive the gift of donor milk from bereaved or surrogate mothers. Filmmakers Kevin West and Jarred King tell beautiful stories about families who have been through this experience in their film, Donor Milk.
Breastmilk donors pump their milk and store it in containers that we provide. If not in the Austin area, donors can ship milk to us at our expense or drop milk off at one of our collection depots. We also accept and welcome donations from mothers who have a stash of frozen breastmilk in their freezers already. All donors are screened before their milk comes into the milk bank.
How can I get started or contribute?
Giving milk is always a generous act, and our donors have amazing, positive attitudes. When it comes to milk banking vs. sharing breastmilk, I encourage women to think first about giving milk to the sickest babies who will benefit most, and that can only happen when donor milk has been screened and made safe for them in a milk bank.
After you find a nonprofit milk bank nearest to you, you will probably undergo 10 to 15 minute phone screening and return a health questionnaire. Don’t worry if the milk bank is several states away—the small number of non-profit milk banks in the U.S. means that each bank serves a large area. The Austin milk bank is currently serving 16 states, and collecting milk from about 20 states. You’ll get blood tests done, which are completely confidential and paid for by the milk bank. When the milk bank gets your results and approves you, you’ll get a call from the executive director and you’re ready to go—you’re a lifesaver.
To find a nonprofit milk bank in your region, please visit or call 817/810-9984.