Donor Human Milk: The Next Best Thing to Mom

Human milk is the very best food for your baby. Your own milk is usually best but if you are not able to provide enough milk for your baby or choose not to pump, donor human milk is the next best thing.

Donor milk has been safely used in Europe for more than a century, and in the United States for more than 100 years. Donor human milk is a way to give your baby human milk when your own milk is not available.

Human milk strengthens the baby’s immune system and may help your baby fight disease and infection. It also contains growth hormones that help your baby grow.

Human milk is easier to digest than most formulas. According to some studies, human milk may also increase intelligence and reduce allergies and illness later in life.

Source of donor milk

Donor milk is ordered from a milk bank that is a member of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). 

Milk bank donors are mothers who care about helping others by providing their extra milk to babies who need it. They are volunteers who are nursing their own babies and generously pump for the milk bank. They receive no payment or compensation, only the satisfaction of knowing they have improved the health of another baby.

The milk bank screens all donors to make sure that they are healthy and meet the HMBANA’s strict donor criteria. All donors receive instructions on proper hand washing, pumping technique and cleaning of equipment.

For more information about the donor milk process and screening criteria, see breast milk donation.

Quality of donor milk

All donor milk is pasteurized (heat-treated) to eliminate bacteria or viruses that may have been present in the milk. The milk is tested after pasteurization to make sure there are no bacteria in the milk. Although some nutrients are lost in pasteurization, donor milk is still better for your baby than infant formula.

Preterm infants need extra special nutrition. For the first few months of life, milk from mothers of preterm infants is higher in some nutrients than milk of mothers who deliver full-term babies. Therefore, preterm milk will be ordered for preterm infants whenever it is available.

Safety of donor milk

In addition to completing a medical history and lifestyle questionnaire, prospective donors are required to obtain the approval of their healthcare provider prior to donating milk. Moreover, donors are tested for HIV, Hepatitis B and syphilis. A mother is accepted as a donor only if she has no risk factors for AIDS and the blood tests are negative for the virus.

These rules are set by the HMBANA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These rules are more stringent than the rules for blood donation.

Reviewed by Diane L. Spatz, PhD, RN-BC, FAAN on August 01, 2009