How I became a breast milk donor

Guest post by Mary

By: Bart EversonCC BY 2.0
This is the story of how I, quite accidentally, became a milk donor after the birth of my second child. It has truly been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. Because I have come to believe milk donation is so important, not only for the babies who receive the milk, but also for the mothers who give it, I decided to write this essay in part to help spread the word so that other women will consider donation, too.

I had my second child in June, and I pumped a little bit every morning and every evening from the very start just to keep my supply a bit high until we knew weight gain was good. (This is in part because of bad start with my first child.) Even after I cut out the evening pumping session and was only pumping around 10 minutes in the morning, I began to realize I was accumulating a lot of frozen milk, especially since I was not returning to outside-the-home work until my baby would be seven months old. I was going to have a major storage problem!

At the same time as I was reading about milk donation, a friend shared with me that a friend of hers had delivered a micro-preemie who was having some bad reactions to formula she was receiving in the NICU. I read the mother’s blog and saw a post in which she expressed great sadness that she had not been able to pump enough milk for her baby. “I wish I could give her some of my milk,” I thought. “It is just sitting there in the freezer.”

So, inspired by her baby’s fight, I looked into milk donation. I discovered that donor milk is really amazing medicine for tiny babies, in particularly helping them avoid necrotizing enterocolitis, which can be fatal to premature babies. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a revised position paper on Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk in 2012 and in the section on “Preterm Infants” states that the standard of care should be that premature babies received pasteurized donor human milk if their mothers are not able to pump sufficient milk for their needs.

I learned that there are two good ways in the United States to donate mother’s milk: 1) informal donation locally through a group such as Eats on Feets or Human Milk 4 Human Babies, or 2) more formal donation to an official Mothers’ Milk Bank certified by Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). These are not-for-profit and they pasteurize the milk and mix it with other milk and then dispense it to hospitals (and occasionally babies at home) for babies with medical prescriptions. Although some of the properties are lost in the pasteurization process, the milk is still extremely helpful for the babies who receive it.

I decided, in part because it was a micro-preemie who inspired me to look into milk donation in the first place, that option two was the right option for me. I discovered that the HMBANA-affiliated Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas was closest to where I live, albeit several states away. The Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas requires a 100 ounce minimum donation (though this requirement is waived for bereaved mothers donating milk), whereas some other banks require a minimum of 150 or 200 ounces.

I contacted the Milk Bank and cleared an informal approval process. I planned to donate some of the milk I already had, but it turned out it was not eligible because I had taken ibuprofen after birth. Although ibuprofen in my milk was safe for my own healthy term infant, it was not considered healthy for a premature baby. So, I had to commit to pumping 100 new ounces to meet the minimum. I thought about it for a week while I kept pumping and then I decided to go for it. My body, with the help of the pump, was producing a few extra ounces of milk a day.

I soon cleared the formal approval process, which involved getting a blood test for hepatitis and HIV from Quest Diagnostics (with no charge to me), getting a note from my doctor that I was healthy enough to donate, getting a note from my baby’s doctor that she was gaining weight well, and filling out a detailed questionnaire about my dietary habits, health history, and other matters.

The actual process of delivering the milk was a little stressful at first for me (though I think the process, which is very well-organized, works very easily for many women). The Milk Bank sends a special mailer to donors (and will fill it with special containers in which we can store our frozen milk so that we don’t have to purchase storage bags) along with a prepaid FedEx mail bill. Once we are ready to make the shipment, we call FedEx to pick up the milk and ship it overnight express. We do have to purchase dry ice for the shipment ourselves, but we can receive either a donation receipt for a tax write-off or a reimbursal from the milk bank for the cost of the ice.

I am deeply proud of being a milk donor. In the end, I donated close to 500 ounces. Each ounce is three meals for a premature baby, and so that was 1500 meals!

The first time I scheduled a delivery, the FedEx agent gave me an eight-hour window, and he came at the exact worst possible time for me juggling a preschooler and a baby and I got very frazzled and struggled to get the box packed. In the end, I sent the FedEx agent on his way. From that point on, my husband drove the packages (I sent a total of four) to the FedEx office at our local airport and so I did not have to worry about a pick-up. The milk always arrived the next day and was pasteurized and delivered shortly thereafter to a baby in need.

I am deeply proud of being a milk donor. In the end, I donated close to 500 ounces. Each ounce is three meals for a premature baby, and so that was 1500 meals!

I also consider this to be something my daughter and I did together, and I cannot wait to tell her about it one day. My body produced milk for her, and I consider her to have shared that milk with other babies. Every morning, after my baby did her first nursing, I sat her down on a Boppy across from me in the floor and pumped 12 minutes, as I sang to her and told her stories about our family. As she grew older, I held objects for her and watched her learn to track with her eyes and to eventually grasp objects. She then began to try to roll and it got a bit trickier to keep her in place, and eventually, I put her in an Exersaucer right next to me as I pumped, but I still sang to her as I pumped. It was really special time for us.

I also consider my son and my husband to have helped donate milk, too. My son, who was already called upon to adapt to all the time I spent nursing the new baby, lost me for another 20 minutes each morning. And my husband played with him during that time each and every morning and also arranged his work schedule to allow him to deliver the milk to the airport.

Truthfully, we all, as a family, donated those 500 ounces and helped those babies.

Because I have a number of friends who have struggled mightily with milk supply, I know how sensitive milk supply can be and so I have told very few people that I was able to produce extra milk for donation. I am writing this essay, in fact, under a pseudonym, because I don’t want to receive any kudos for what was really a minor commitment of time (especially considering how hard the babies who received the milk must fight, and how much agony their mothers often experience as they watch, wait, and only hold their babies with permission), or reinforce the disappointments some other women might have. I do hope, though, that this essay will help at least a few women understand more about milk donation and how easy it is so that they will also consider donating some of their precious liquid gold to babies desperately in need.

Comments on How I became a breast milk donor

  1. Thank you for sharing this information! I’m currently nursing (and pumping) with my second and have started thinking about milk donation. I’ve just never put the time and energy into look up the resources! Thank you for sharing! 🙂

  2. My daughter and I have helped four familes to date. I’ve helped a new mom who’s son had an allergy to formula. I’ve helped two daddy’s who brought home their little princess, a mom who got ill and needed to take medication that breastfeeding was conter-indicated for, and a mom who suddenly dried up.

    • What group (if any) did you donate through, Denise? I think it is great that you were able to know something about the specific families you helped. It seems to me like that sort of personal connection would making donating more rewarding for the donors and encourage them to keep donating (Not that anonymous donation wouldn’t be rewarding, just that specifics would make it even more rewarding).

      • I used Human Milk 4 Human Babies. I actually used a personal touch due to logistics with shipping work and my job. But in the end, I enjoyed the approach I used.

  3. I only just recently found out about milk donation & then found myself donating.
    I had my 2nd child near the end of January & have not had the easiest time with breastfeeding. Like his sister before him, baby boy was an eager eater & my sensitive nipples could barely take it, even with the help of a nipple shield. As with her, I stuck with it. This time I had the added confidence from having nursed her for a year.
    Then we both got thrush & then I got mastitis. I didn’t realize until after I’d recovered that mastitis is caused by blocked milk ducts. I was still dealing with those off & on for weeks afterwards. The process of getting the ducts unclogged left me with a surplus.
    I knew a friend of a friend received donor milk, so I asked her about the process. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to donate because of my medications. It turns out that she & her son are on similar meds, so I was able to donate to them!
    I don’t know if I’ll be able to maintain the surplus much longer, but I’m glad all that extra milk is being put to good use. 🙂

  4. Thank you! Thank you! thank you! I’m the mom of two 2 lb preemies and am currently on strict bed rest to keep me pregnant as long as possible.
    I can not thank milk donors enough.

    With my twins I pumped around the clock and met with lactation consultants weekly but still only produced a few ml a day ( oh the stresses of the nicu ). When my daughter nearly died of necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) we were advised to start supplementing with donor milk. And due to allergies and digestive we had to continue using donor milk for many months. Women like you literally save preemies lives.

    • I am so glad your daughter is OK. I cannot imagine how scary that must have been.

      Good luck with you continuing your current pregnancy — I hope you stay pregnant as long as possible!

  5. I think it’s absolutely fantastic that you did this! What a great story. It’s wonderful to know that there are women willing to do this and that there are donation centers who make it possible.

    That being said – I found a woman on Craigslist this morning SELLING her breast milk. In the baby & kids section, not the adult fetish-y section. I don’t think it would have phased me if I’d found it in the adult section, frankly – to each his or her own. But I was pretty floored by the selling of it. Hospital bills, perhaps? :/

    • Also, I know the health benefits for adults who use breast milk, so I know some people might buy it for that reason. But I still wouldn’t buy any food from Craigslist, let alone a food that is so easily contaminated. Y’know?

    • Pumping breast milk takes time and the purchase of a good pump. If she were doing anything else that would take her away from her baby (programming, waitressing, teaching, being a doctor) you wouldn’t question whether it was okay for her to be paid for her time and for toll on her body. Why is this different and why does it require a special need to be okay?

      • I think it’s more of a health concern, rather than a concern about the IDEA of selling breast milk. I’d be pretty leery about buying bodily fluids through Craigslist from a woman whose history/health one knows nothing about (as opposed to the donor facilities, which seem to run health checks on their donors beforehand).

        • Exactly. Breast milk is a freaking awesome, amazing substance – but it’s still a bodily fluid. I’d still need to know the person before I bought it. I come from a family with allergies – things like contaminants are super important.

        • It’s like how the Red Cross has a policy against paying blood donors, even though more people would probably donate blood if they did, because it creates a motivation for people to lie on the pre-donation health forms.

          If someone is donating out of altruism, they have no motivation to try to donate in spite of possible risks to the health of the receiver, but if the donor is being paid, then they have a motivation to lie or just fudge their answers a little in favor making themselves look like a good donor.

      • To me, it’s absolutely about the health concern. I’m not criticizing the morals or ethics of the person selling the milk – it’s more like, why would I purchase breast milk from someone I’d never met and give it to my child? If a good friend of mine wanted to sell me some, that would be a different story. And donating to a milk bank, as the article states, requires testing and verification as well. I wouldn’t buy homemade baby food on Craigslist either, but I’d buy it from someone I knew well or a person who had opened a business and could verify that the food was safe and free of contaminants.

        • So it’s okay to get donated milk from strangers but not buy it? I’m confused by that.

          I’ve known women who have sold breast milk on Craigslist so that they CAN meet the families and develop a relationship with a woman who is local, and develop a relationship with the family. I think that it would make me more likely to continue pumping through the hard times if I could visualize the baby that I’m donating to. But these women still need to make some money, at the same time.

  6. I have been very lucky and have had an easy time with breast feeding and have a good supply and you’ve really inspired me to look into being a milk donor, so thank you!

  7. My daughter was a 31-weeker, and by the time she came home from the hospital I was pumping less than half of what she needed every day (I’d been pretty sick, too!)–she did end up on preemie formula with no difficulties, and was on it for a whole year after discharge, but if she’d had any intestinal issues in the NICU we definitely would’ve gone with a donor. Thank you so much for what you do! It may not seem like much, but for those of us who struggle in vain with pumping (while our baby is in the NICU, no less), it is an incredible gift.

  8. That is such a wonderful thing to do! I became interested when my baby was in the hospital and needed milk, and I hope to donate if I ever have another baby. It is such a meaningful gift. Such a gift of love.

  9. On behalf of someone who gave birth to very tiny twin preemies, THANK YOU!!! My babies were born at 29 weeks weighing less than 3 lbs and are doing great 10 months later. We absolutely relied on donor milk to help keep their immune systems healthy, and I believe the donor milk has a direct correlation to their early release from the hospital and current good health. I live in Ontario and our province has only just started a donor milk bank. Our hospital imported pasteurized breast milk directly from a bank in Ohio and we are so grateful to all the amazing women who donate!

    • I am so glad your children are doing so well — and hurray to Ontario for opening a bank. There need to be so many more banks and so many more donors! I am glad you were able to receive milk from Ohio!

  10. Way to go! I didn’t plan to become a donor, but when my daughter was diagnosed with food allergies, I was left with a bunch of frozen milk that wasn’t safe for her to drink. I ended up donating over 300 oz to a local mom through HM4HB.

    Breastfeeding has been very trying and emotional for me – my daughter never latched and I’ve been exclusively pumping. And I’ve hated it. But knowing that I’m giving my baby one of the few safe, nutritious things she can eat, AND PLUS ALSO knowing I helped another mama out? SO WORTH IT.

  11. Thanks so much for sharing your story! My daughter was born at 42 weeks and spent her first 16 days at the NICU because of Meconium Aspiration Syndrome. I ended up pumping for the first 6 weeks during the rocky beginning of our breastfeeding relationship. I was very lucky to have an overabundant milk supply, especially during the first 6 months of nursing my daughter. I thought about milk donation but I never got around to doing it. My second daughter will hopefully be making her appearance sometime over the next 6 weeks and if all works out, I would love to donate my milk. It’s impossible to forgot the sight and sound of all those tiny, tiny babies in NICU. Thanks for explaining how easy the process can be…

  12. Well done, such a great gift. My daughter came early too at 29 weeks and while I had abundant supply, her immature little gut had trouble digesting my milk. Which meant a lot of tests and worry, but I still kept pumping round the clock, filling up the freezer at hm and 3 shelves in the massive hospital freezer.

    My daughter eventually came hm from the nicu on a special, pre-digested formula which finally helped her to grow, and grow out of her immature gut, so after 4 months she could finally breastfeed! I couldn’t store all my pumped milk at hm so I donated most of it to the hospital and gave some to a friend who also had a micro-premmie. Later she would mix it in her daughters porridge!

    In Australia, breast milk donation varies from state to state. I’m just so thankful that my hospital had the necessary pasteurisation equipment and the switched on lactation consultants to facilitate donations. It feels good that while my daughter couldn’t benefit at first from my milk, some other baby in that nicu has. Makes getting up at 3am to pump worthwhile!

    • Jen, that is so wonderful that your baby is thriving — and eventually nursed! — and also that you were able to help another baby too. And so happy your hospital had appropriate infrastructure. That is so critical and is missing so much of the time, alas.

  13. What a beautiful gesture! Thank you from a preemie mom. My son was born at 27 weeks weighing 1lb4oz, his prognosis was poor. It took weeks before we were even able to try to feed him milk (he was on IV nutrition like all micropreemies, the intestines just aren`t developped enough before) but every time we would try a tiny drop his poor stomach would balloon up and his health would deteriorate. We would stop for a few days then try again, to the same frustrating result.

    Meanwhile I was trying very hard to pump around the clock. I was producing tiny drops – in fact some of my most vivid memories are the wonderful nurses helping me at 2am, trying patiently to suction up those precious little droplets into tiny syringes for freezing. It was a source of great stress because all the doctors, nurses, documentation, research said clearly micro preemie greatly benefit from the immunity boost from breastmilk. Indeed the body`s immune system only develops around 28-30 weeks of gestation so babies born earlier are very sensitive to infections.

    My son did get NEC (which is why his stomach was so swollen) but eventually it subsided and his state improved. I`ve always told myself those tiny droplets might been the difference that saved him.

    There was no milk bank at the time (this was 2 years ago) but I believe they`re finally putting one in place. I think having access to one would have reduced my sky-high level of stress, to know when my pathetic supply disapeared I would have been able to give him milk anyway. When he did return home I still had almost no supply so I gave mostly preemie formula and kept trying to pump around the clock. Had I known of such a program I would definitely have applied to receive some milk.

    I’m always a bit worried that pasteurization might destroy the beneficial properties so I’m partial to direct donations – but I understand the concerns regarding medication and such.

    I could sooo write a novel on this topic! but I’ll resume by saying thanks from a preemie mom. It`s a beautiful gesture.

  14. I am so glad your baby is doing well, and yes every drop counts! You did your very best for him! And yes, I can totally see how having more milk banks would reduce anxiety levels for many mothers, at a time that is already so incredibly anxious.

    I read a chart a few months ago that looked at what is lost when breast milk is pasteurized. There are a few things that go down. One, I remember, was vitamin A is a bit lower. The chart confirmed that fresh milk definitely is better, but also that pasteurized donor milk is still better in terms of ease of digestion and immunological properties than formula. So, I think direct donation would be the absolute best, but no hospital will take that, so pasteurized it is! I think direct donation is also great. I felt guilty in fact sometimes when I heard about local calls for milk and yet I was sending milk three states away! Like I said in the essay, though, for me personally, I just felt called to support the preemies. But, however it happens, milk bank or person-to-person, I think milk sharing is awesome.

    • This is not the chart I originally saw — which compared not just fresh donor and pasteurized donor milk, but also pasteurized donor milk and formula — but this description of pasteurization is helpful. Some of the immunological stuff does get reduced, it appears. At the same time, this is from the Canada Pediatric Society website and is very pro-donor-milk and includes lots of info on the benefits that are still there for preemies. This is from 2010, and I believe there is more recent research specifically on donor milk and NEC and how it is so helpful to counter that.

      Effects of pasteurization on human breast milk

      The process of pasteurizing human breast milk inactivates bacterial and viral contaminants such as cytomegalovirus [33]-[35]. Spore-forming Bacillus species are known to survive routine Holder pasteurization but, unlike cow’s milk, this is a rare contaminant of human breast milk and is detectable from the surveillance cultures performed before and after pasteurization [36]. Despite viral inactivation, women are only accepted as donors if they are seronegative for hepatitis B and C, human T cell leukemia virus and HIV.

      Many of the nutritional components are not altered or only minimally reduced in content through the process of pasteurization [37]. Carbohydrates, fats and salts are unchanged. Thirteen per cent of the protein content is denatured. Fat-soluble vitamins are unchanged. While not all of the water-soluble vitamins have been studied, some have been shown to degrade following pasteurization [38][39].

      There are effects on immunological factors [40]. Along with inactivation of all viruses and most bacteria through pasteurization, all beneficial immune cells are also inactivated. Secretory immunoglobulin (Ig) A, which binds microbes within the digestive tract, is found at 67% to 100% of its original activity. Targeted IgG antibodies are reduced at 66% to 70%. IgM antibodies are completely removed. Lactoferrin, which binds iron required by many bacteria, thus reducing their growth, is reduced to 20% [41] of its original level. Lysozyme enzyme, which attacks bacterial cell walls, drops to 75% activity. A reduction in certain cytokines by pasteurization permits an expanded function of epidermal growth factor, which may lead to increased growth of intestinal epithelial cells exposed to pasteurized human donor breast milk [42].

  15. I love this post! Thank you so much for telling your story. I think that milk donation needs to become more commonplace in our society. Sadly, I am one of those moms who has tons of milk at the tap for her baby, but does not respond well to a pump, so it was really hard to pump for her once I went back to work. I wish there had been donor milk options in my area. . . I will admit that I am also one of those moms who feels a pang of sadness and envy when I see pictures of mom’s milk stashes, because I never had that. The most I ever had in my freezer was 80 oz, and I was so proud of it!! I would sometimes take it out and count it like Scrooge McDuck counting his money, haha! But I loved reading this post and it made me tear up a bit when I read about how you felt that it was a joint effort b/w you and your daughter. That is such a sweet and strong sentiment. Way to go, Mama!

    • I was the same way! Tons of supply, terrible at pumping. No matter how many baby videos I watched or little hats I tried smelling, I couldn’t pump worth a darn. Only way I could get more than an ounce out at a time was by throwing on a pump on one breast while the baby ate at the other.

      unfortunately, with a baby that loved extreme gymnastics and dance moves during nursing, even that tactic didn’t work long, and once my son decided he hated bottles I threw in the towel because he wouldn’t eat even if I had a stash.

      I always regretted that I was a terrible pumper. Could have been a great traditional wet nurse if someone wanted to just hand me a baby, but no luck with the mechanics.

  16. I love donating milk! During the 7 months I’ve been nursing, I’ve fed 6 babies. I’m currently giving 40-50oz a week to a local friend in need. I’m so glad others are doing this too.

  17. Wow! I had no idea this was a thing! Thanks! Interestingly enough, there is a donation center for the Mother’s Milk Bank of North Texas at the hospital where my husband works, so when the time comes it sounds like a perfect fit. I feel like I need the “The More You Know” rainbow right now!

  18. Thanks for the info, I had never heard of this before, I shall definitely look into it once I have the babies.
    I sometimes wonder over to this branch of the offbeat empire whenever I get a touch of baby fever.

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