Jennifer with husband Eric and son Kieran.                                 What an amazing henna tattoo!

Jennifer McDonnell had milk to spare when she was nursing her son Kieran. Rather than let it go to waste, she donated it to a milk bank. “It was a bit of work,” she told me,  “but it was really powerful. It’s interesting to know that there are systems set up if you want to participate in things like that and help other people out.”

I interviewed Jennifer recently for another article, about donating umbilical cord blood. She donated Kieran’s cord blood to LifebankUSA for research. That article will be in Maine Women Magazine. I’ll post a link when it comes out.

At the end of the interview Jennifer mentioned that she also donated her breast milk. “I feel very strongly about breastfeeding. It’s really good from a lot of different perspectives. You hear stories of moms who can’t nurse or something happens to mom, and the milk bank is there for those situations. This was just another way I felt like I could give back.”

According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), the first milk bank was established in Vienna, Austria in 1909. One year later a bank opened in the United States, at the former Floating Hospital for Children in Boston. Some of you may remember the Dionne quintuplets, who were born prematurely in Canada in the 1930s. Mothers from Canada and the United States donated 8,000 ounces of breast milk to help feed the five babies. Today, there are nearly one dozen HMBANA member milk banks that provide donor milk to the United States and Canada. They each have to follow strict donor standards and guidelines.

Human milk bank donor guidelines

  • Screened for health behaviors
  • Screened for communicable diseases
  • Non-smoker
  • Don’t regularly use medications
  • Don’t take certain medications or drink alcohol within a specified period
  • Personal physician sign-off

Naomi Bar-Yam, PhD, is the Executive Director of Mothers’ Milk Bank of New England, a fairly new bank in Newtonville, MA and a member of HMBANA. She told me that once a woman passes all the requirements, she is signed on as a donor and can either ship or hand deliver her milk. It has to be kept frozen and marked so the bank knows when it was pumped. As long as it’s packed in dry ice, with overnight shipping it will still be frozen when it arrives.

In addition to all the testing beforehand, the donated milk is pasteurized. “We need to make very sure of the milk,” Naomi explained to me, “because we’re feeding very small, vulnerable babies.”

Milk from a bank primarily goes to premature or extremely ill babies, and requires a doctor’s prescription. Testing, pasteurization, and shipping costs are covered by charging recipients, usually about $4.50 an ounce.

“In this area,” says Naomi, “insurance doesn’t routinely cover donated breast milk yet. It’s something we’re working on, but it’s a long-term process. It should be covered as standard operating procedure, because of both short-term and long-term better outcomes for babies.”

Matilda and Emily

Banks may offer assurance that donated milk is safe and disease-free, but many women, including Emily Murray, prefer a less formal arrangement that is free of charge — milk sharing.

For a variety of reasons, Emily got off to a rough start trying to breastfeed her newborn daughter Matilda.

“I never expected nursing to be as challenging as it was,” she shared with me recently. “It’s just one of those you don’t know until you’re there type of experiences, and we had to make a decision — either supplement with formula or supplement with donor milk.”

Emily’s first choice was to find a donor. As the co-founder of Birth Roots, a resource hub of information for families in greater Portland, she had access to a wide support network, including other mothers who were willing to share their milk.

Thanks to the generosity of a woman whose twins were in the NICU and had lots of extra milk, for the six weeks she needed it, Emily was able to get “a real steady supply of donor milk.” She admits, “It was a risk, but being able to talk personally with the woman donating the milk I felt confident that her milk was as safe as my milk.  It was such a relief knowing. If necessary, if I knew of someone who had a freezer full of milk and I needed it, I’d be inclined to do the same.”

Lactation consultant Bettina Pearson, RN, BSN, IBCLC, says there is a fair amount of milk sharing in Maine. “One mom I worked with used donor milk with her adopted baby and then was determined to ‘pay back’ the favor when she had pre-term twins. She was amazing. She probably helped at least three other babies besides her own. I also spoke recently with a mom who sent some of her last baby’s milk to Africa.”

The Food and Drug Administration advises against milk sharing because “the donor is unlikely to have been screened for infectious disease or contamination.” Nevertheless, it appeals to a large number of women, who can tap into an informal network or find other resources, such as MilkShare, which connects recipients and donors at no cost.

How breast milk is donated and distributed may be a controversial topic, but most experts agree that human milk is best for human babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics states “breastfeeding ensures the best possible health as well as the best developmental and psychosocial outcomes for the infant.”

The decision to breastfeed is a personal one and no woman should be made to feel guilty if she can’t or chooses not to nurse her baby. Unfortunately, even women who do breastfeed their own babies can face obstacles, from lack of support to no time or place to pump when they go back to work to limited information. Earlier this year, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin issued a Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding. In a nutshell, she said we must shift how we as nation think and talk about breastfeeding and provide more support and fewer barriers. I hope the information and links provided in this post have helped you learn more about supporting women who want to, but can’t, breastfeed their babies.

An update: You may have noticed in the picture at the top of this post that Jennifer McDonnell was quite pregnant. Cormack made his entrance into the world last Thursday, July 28. And yes, if his mother has milk to spare, she will donate.