What is a human milk bank?

In the absence of a mother’s own milk, donor human milk—milk from another mother—has been shown to improve health outcomes for vulnerable infants. A human milk bank (sometimes called a “mother’s milk bank” or “donor milk bank”) is an organization that collects, screens, processes, and distributes human milk, to ensure that the milk is free of infectious disease.

Non-profit human milk banks in the U.S. and Canada are members of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). Founded in 1985, HMBANA sets professional standards for human milk banking and storage. There are currently 29 operating HMBANA milk banks and siz banks under development.

Several leading health authorities, including American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have endorsed the HMBANA milk as the only reputable source of donor human milk. Although milk sharing has gained popularity in recent years, these organizations argue that only pasteurized milk from a milk bank can be considered safe.

Lactating women who would like to donate milk to HMBANA must be screened for communicable diseases (similar to screening of blood donors), be non-smokers, take no routine medication (with a few exceptions), and consume no banned medications or alcohol within a specified timeframe. Donors ship or bring their frozen milk to the nearest milk bank. Screening and shipping costs are paid for by the receiving milk bank. Donated milk is pooled with milk from other donors then heat-treated to kill bacteria or viruses. After processing, the milk is refrozen and tested. The milk is distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada by physician prescription or hospital purchase order. A processing fee covers the expense of collecting, pasteurizing, and dispensing the milk.

Common reasons health care providers may prescribe donor milk for infants includes prematurity, allergies, feeding/formula intolerance, immunologic deficiencies, post-operative nutritional needs, infectious diseases, and metabolic disorders. According to HMBANA, donor milk provides optimal nutrition, easy digestibility, and immunologic protections against many organisms and diseases. It also contains substances (unique to human milk) that protect immature tissue, promote gastrointestinal tract health, and aid tissue healing.

If you’re a mother who produces more milk than your baby needs, or if you’re a parent with a child in need of milk, contact the human milk bank nearest you for more information on how you can become a donor or your child can become a recipient.

Last updated May 20, 2020

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