Is Donated Breast Milk Safe?

No one can dispute the many health benefits of feeding babies breast milk. Even formula companies admit that although they may try, they just cannot manufacture a product that provides the same ingredients of human milk.  But what if you are a mom who cannot provide breast milk for your baby? Did you know there are options beyond formula?

Using donor milk is something that seems to be a bit of a mystery. Where does it come from? Is it free from diseases? Is it really safe? The answer to these questions really depends on where you get the donated milk.

Using a registered milk bank is the safest option for obtaining milk for your baby. In fact, the OhioHealth Mothers’ Milk Bank, located in Columbus, accepts and dispenses donated breast milk from all over the state. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital uses milk from this bank to feed their most fragile babies. They really encourage Mom to pump and provide her own milk, but, if for some reason that is not possible, they use donated breast milk. Milk from this bank can only be obtained with a prescription from a physician. Interestingly, this type of milk is sometimes used for older children and even some adults with special medical needs.

Milk from OhioHealth Mothers’ Milk Bank goes through a stringent process before being dispensed. Donors are screened for eligibility, by phone interview and by simple blood testing. Milk is then collected by mail (special shipping is required and is provided by the milk bank), or dropped off at one of the drop off sites, usually at hospitals around the state. It is analyzed, mixed, pasteurized, and then frozen for shipment. The pasteurization process is important to kill any bacteria that is in the milk from the collection process, but also preserves as many of the beneficial cells as possible.

A quick Internet search will reveal a variety of banks that will actually pay you money for your breast milk. There is usually a minimum number of ounces that can be sold (150 ounces or more is typical). Some of these sites will require blood testing, and a screening process similar to that described above in order to donate. Some companies use the milk to make a human milk fortifier for sick babies, while some just dispense the milk. Some sites connect donor moms with recipient moms and allow direct contact between the two parties.

One other type of breast milk donation is mom-to-mom breast milk selling and sharing. Most easily found online, this type of donation relies heavily on the donor and recipient to arrange for price and transport of milk. Trust is of utmost importance in this process. Since there is no oversight on donors or donations, there is no guarantee on the safety or “cleanliness” of the milk. Some diseases can be transmitted via breast milk, and the use of drugs (prescription or street) and alcohol are all things to be considered when thinking about accepting breast milk from another mom.

Moms would also want to be very careful regarding handling of the milk itself — following recommendations regarding hand hygiene and breast milk storage, and safely shipping or transporting the milk. Another concern is breast milk additives; with moms willing to pay up to $3 an ounce, adding cow’s milk to the breast milk to increase the volume has been known to happen. Home pasteurization of the received milk is always advised. A donor should always be willing to provide up-to-date lab results and/or a letter from their physician stating that they are a suitable donor. The bottom line: There is no oversight on mom-to-mom selling of breast milk. Buyer beware!

Would you consider using donated breast milk or becoming a breast milk donor? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Angie BaumanAngie Bauman has been an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Parent Instructor for ProMedica for the past 6 years. She enjoys teaching parents-to-be about labor and birth, and building confidence in a new mom’s ability to parent and feed her baby. She has also been a Labor and Delivery nurse at ProMedica Toledo Hospital for 13 years. Angie is Mom to 10 year old Lukas, 6 year old Noah and 3 year old Adele, who continually share their own wisdom on how parenting should be done. Angie’s blog, Let’s Spill the Milk! publishes on HealthConnect each month.