Pregnant woman looking down at her stomach.

What to Know About Donor Breast Milk

Donor breast milk, like breastfeeding, offers numerous benefits to both newborns and new moms. Breast milk is packed with vitamins and nutrients, while nursing promotes skin-to-skin bonding and development. Despite these benefits, breastfeeding can be difficult for many mothers. While there are a few options to help you overcome the challenges associated with nursing, sometimes, it’s not enough. While baby formula is a great alternative, new parents who want their children to benefit from breast milk have another option—donor breast milk. Here, we’ll explore everything you should know about donor breast milk, its safety, and where to find it.

Key Information on Breastfeeding

By now, we all have at least heard about the benefits of breastfeeding. Breast milk is packed with vitamins and nutrients that help your newborn grow into healthy, strong toddlers, children, and adults. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed (either through nursing or with breast pumping and bottle feeding) until they’re about six months old. At that time, breast milk should continue to be incorporated into their diets until they’re at least one year old.

Unfortunately, breastfeeding doesn’t come easy to everyone. In reality, only three days after giving birth, 92% of new mothers say they have difficulty or problems with breastfeeding. While some new moms struggle with the latch, others experience pain or aren’t producing enough milk. Also, some babies may be born with congenital conditions or lip and tongue ties, making nursing even more difficult. Lactation consultants can help, but when there’s no relief for the struggle, some parents have to make the difficult decision to switch to formula.

While baby formula isn’t wrong per se, there are more benefits to giving your baby breast milk. However, if you absolutely cannot nurse, your baby still needs sustenance and nutrition that can be found in formula. If you need to make the switch to formula, talk to your pediatrician about the best recommendations for your baby’s needs. Alternatively, you may want to explore using donor breast milk.

Where Does Donor Breast Milk Come From?

If you’re interested in using donor breast milk, you can safely acquire some from the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). This organization was founded in 1985 and believes that all infants should have access to human milk through the support of breastfeeding and the use of pasteurized donor human milk. They’re composed of members who donate extra breast milk that can be acquired by new mothers who cannot nurse, regardless of the reason.

When mothers produce extra breast milk that they won’t be able to use, they can donate it to HMBANA. HMBANA comprises several milk banks nationwide, making it easy for mothers to find an accredited location that provides donor breast milk that’s been evaluated and tested for safety. There are also volunteers who choose to breast pump specifically to supply HMBANA with donor breast milk. Each member or volunteer undergoes screening and must meet the strict donor criteria held in place by HMBANA. The screening process typically includes a medical history and lifestyle questionnaire. Each donor will also be tested for transmissible diseases such as Hepatitis B, syphilis, and HIV.

Evaluating the Safety of Donor Milk

To ensure donor breast milk is safe for your newborn, it undergoes rigorous testing and is held to the standards of the HMBANA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, these safety standards only apply to donor breast milk acquired from accredited milk banks like those within the HMBANA network. There are additional milk banks outside of HMBANA, and as long as they take the necessary steps to screen their donors and properly handle, test, and store the breast milk, it should be safe. The donor breast milk should also be tested for harmful bacteria before it’s passed on to you. Many milk banks will then pasteurize it to eliminate the possibility of any infectious organisms. Although the pasteurization process can also destroy some beneficial nutritional and immunological properties, the breast milk will still have plenty of its original properties.

Always discuss your options with your healthcare provider. Giving your baby someone else’s milk can be a little scary, especially if you don’t know where it came from. The best way to increase the likelihood of safe donor milk is to work with an accredited organization.

What to Know About Informal Breast Milk Sharing

Informal breast milk sharing involves finding someone you know or someone in your local community to provide you with breast milk. This donor breast milk has not undergone the intense safety checks performed within organizations such as HMBANA, so why would someone choose this route?

The reality is that a lot of HMBANA donor breast milk is reserved for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). This can make it difficult for mothers with healthy, full-term babies to find donor breast milk. When a mother is unable to nurse and still wants to provide their newborn with the benefits of breast milk, they may choose the informal route. This route obviously carries a few more risks, but it can also be beneficial to new mothers who have no other option.

The primary risk of informal breast milk sharing is the lack of quality control. Sharing between very close friends or family members can give you a stronger peace of mind about transmissible diseases or infectious agents. Still, unless they undergo testing or screening, you won’t be 100% sure. However, many family members or friends have agreed to get tested to provide their loved ones with peace of mind during informal breast milk sharing.

Conversely, breast milk that’s purchased online doesn’t tend to have benefits that outweigh the risks. In fact, studies have found that donor breast milk purchased online outside of accredited organizations was frequently contaminated with high levels of bacteria—including salmonella. Other samples were found to be diluted with cow’s milk, which is dangerous for newborns to consume. Plus, once it arrived via shipping, the breast milk was warm and, therefore, unsafe to give to a baby. Simply put, donor breast milk is not something you want to get on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.

Key Takeaways About Using Donor Breast Milk

Donor breast milk can be a safe alternative to your own breast milk as long as it's acquired through a reputable organization or milk bank. If you feel comfortable with informal breast milk sharing, that’s your decision. However, keep in mind that it does carry serious risks, especially if you get the donor breast milk from an unknown source. In these instances, it’s usually safer to stick to formulas.

If you’ve had a premature birth and your baby is in the NICU, talk to your doctor about acquiring donor breast milk from HMBANA as soon as possible. If you have a healthy, full-term baby and are struggling with breastfeeding, ask for recommendations from a lactation consultant. Although it can feel like an uphill battle, lactation consultants are there to help you try everything you can to find success in nursing. If you’re still struggling and don’t want to switch to formula, ask your pediatrician about options for safe donor milk banks in your area. You can also look up nearby donor banks through HMBANA here.

Alternatively, you may want to consider breast pumping. Breast pumping is a great alternative for new mothers who are struggling to nurse but still want to provide their newborns with their own breast milk. There are several different options available, many of which are designed to help stimulate your milk supply and maximize output. Ideally, you’ll want to order a breast pump before your delivery date, but you can still acquire one shortly after and start reaping the benefits. There are many different types of pumps available, including manual, electric, and hospital-grade pumps. Some of the most popular brands include Medela, Willow, Elvie, and more.

To help prepare you for parenthood, order an insurance-covered breast pump from Byram Healthcare. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, all new and expecting mothers are eligible to receive one at zero out-of-pocket costs. To learn more about your options and get started with the ordering process, check out our comparison guide today.