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Milk Banking 101: What are milk banks and who actually uses them?

Milk Banking 101: What are milk banks and who actually uses them?

Breast milk really is magical. Beyond ‘cuddle chemicals’ for you and baby, human milk contains nutrients and antibodies that are essential for babies’ development – particularly for those who are born prematurely. For a number of reasons, these babies can’t be breastfed by their mothers, but that’s when milk banks offer the next-best solution – pasteurized donor milk. 

What are milk banks? 

Well, if you’re sat there wondering what human milk banks are, you’re not alone. Only 1 in 10 people in the UK have actually heard of them. Since the 1980s, milk banks have virtually disappeared from hospitals around the world, due in large part to the extensive knowledge and administrative effort it takes to keep one running. 

However, this trend is beginning to change. Now we have leading maternity care and neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) across the world working to reintroduce milk banking. Currently considered a ‘best-kept secret’ for families in need, human milk scientists and banks around the world are actively on a mission to make it a universally accepted standard of care. 

Milk banks operate in a similar way to blood transfusion services, storing and dispensing human milk to very sick or premature newborns whose mothers aren’t able to provide enough or any of their own breastmilk – something that’s pretty common during those first few days after giving birth. 

Typically, the banks collect expressed breastmilk from pre-screened mothers – many of which have an oversupply. It’s then pasteurized, then ready to be given to babies who need it most

Why would a baby need donated milk? 

A mother who gives birth prematurely may experience a delay in her milk coming in. In other instances, a mother whose baby is too immature to feed may not be able to express enough milk. Using donor milk to bridge the gap is beneficial to these mothers who are struggling to start their feeding journeys, as it leads to more mothers breastfeeding their babies by the time they’re ready to go home. 

Babies who are ill or are premature or who are cared for in NICUs tend to receive donated milk for a few days or weeks until they can be fed with mother’s milk. Giving these babies human milk helps to prevent severe illnesses, and ultimately, reduces their stay in hospital. Sometimes, milk banks have milk available for other babies who might need more milk than their mothers can produce, or who were perhaps born from a surrogate mother, same-sex couples, etc. 

Why donate breastmilk? 

By now, you know how we feel about human milk. But by donating milk – like your oversupply – you’re helping babies in need get the best start in life. Containing hormones and disease-fighting compounds that can’t be found in formula milk, it’s the ideal concoction of nutrients (at least 400 of them) that a baby needs. 

Derived (mostly) from bovines, formula milk can cause allergic reactions in some babies, and others can have illnesses that prevent them from absorbing formula at all. When you donate milk, you help these babies grow and develop well. If premature babies are given breastmilk, infants with low birth weight, or who are unwell, are much less likely to develop the life-threatening gut infection necrotizing enterocolitis

Can any breastfeeding mama donate her milk? 

Well, unfortunately not. Milk banks only recruit healthy mothers with babies under six months old who are not yet weaned.

If you want to donate milk, the bank will ask you to undergo screening for infections that may pass into your milk. They’ll also want to know if you have a health condition and if you take regular medications – this includes herbal remedies. They’ll also want to know about your alcohol consumption and how much caffeine you drink on a day-to-day basis. Now, just because you have a health condition, take medicines, or consume (small) amounts of alcohol, it doesn’t necessarily rule you out for donating breast milk. But ultimately, the milk bank wants to know that the milk you supply is safe for the baby who receives it. 


Find out more about donation

Support milk banks this December 

Read about the Human Milk Banking Association of North America

Read about the Human Milk Foundation 

Find out about donating your breastmilk in the UK 

Find out about donating your breastmilk in the US