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Donor breast milk: Giving preemies and newborns a healthy start

Donor breast milk 320
Donor breast milk helps bridge nutritional gaps for babies with medical needs, such as preterm birth, or in cases of maternal illness.

“Donor breast milk? Is that even a thing?” Curious parents ask us this question regularly when we talk about newborn feeding. 

Not only is breast milk donation a thing, it has helped thousands of babies get a healthy start in life.

UT Southwestern’s William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital partners with the Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas, a nonprofit organization in Fort Worth that serves approximately 130 hospitals in the U.S. To date, Mothers’ Milk has collected more than 4 million ounces of donated breast milk from over 7,000 donors.

The milk bank helps bridge nutritional gaps for babies with medical needs, such as preterm birth, or in cases of maternal illness. Well babies can benefit, too, if the mother’s milk takes longer than expected to fully come in.

To spread the word, and in honor of Breastfeeding Awareness Month in August, I joined lactation experts Linda Catterton ADN, B.A., R.N., IBCLC of Clements and Amanda Alvarez, MS, IBCLC of Mothers’ Milk for a Facebook Live chat to answer common questions about breast milk donation and breastfeeding issues.

Ask the experts about the benefits of donor breast milk

UT Southwestern’s William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital partners with the Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas, a nonprofit organization in Fort Worth that serves approximately 130 hospitals in the U.S. In this Facebook video, experts from UT Southwestern and Mother's Milk explain the process and how it helps mothers and newborns.

Is donor breast milk safe?

Mothers’ Milk belongs to the Human Milk Bank Association of North America (HMBANA). This organization ensures milk banks adhere to stringent safety requirements for the donation and dispensing of breast milk.

Every potential breast milk donor will have a phone screening and blood work to verify their health. Mothers’ Milk checks for conditions such as HIV, hepatitis A or B, evidence of drug use, and bacterial infection. They also contact the woman’s doctor and her baby’s pediatrician to make sure both are healthy and receiving ongoing care.

Every donation is pasteurized to kill any viruses or bacteria, and all are analyzed by their own laboratory plus an independent lab to ensure safety. Before distribution, each donation is tagged with a barcode that can be traced back to the donor, if necessary.

Precautions regarding donor breast milk

Parents interested in receiving donor breast milk should only accept milk from a nonprofit milk bank governed by HMBANA. Purchase or acceptance of breast milk donations from any other source may jeopardize the baby’s health and safety. 

Though cross-nursing (allowing someone else to nurse one’s baby) has gone on for years, women should consider the potential health risks of giving the baby unregulated breast milk. We recommend working with a milk bank for an extra layer of safety and peace of mind.

Also, it is not safe to give a baby animal milk or “homemade” formula supplementation. Both can increase the risk of malnutrition, gastrointestinal issues, and other concerns.

Related readingQ&A: Is it safe to take medications while breastfeeding?

Which babies are eligible for donor breast milk?

The answer depends on whether you are going through the hospital or directly through the milk bank. 

Hospital use criteria

For moms that have a healthy baby born at term and would like to use donor breast milk to temporarily meet their baby's nutritional needs, we ask that they also pump their own breast milk. Such donor breast milk can serve as a bridge until the mother’s own milk comes in. Donated milk is a precious commodity, and we want the baby to be used to the nourishment they’ll get at home, as well as helping increase mom’s supply while under our care. 

When a baby is born preterm, sometimes it takes a while for the mother’s milk to come in. Also, having a baby in the NICU can be stressful, which can cause lactation issues. As such, babies born before 34 weeks are automatically eligible for donor breast milk at Clements University Hospital.

Full-term babies with medical needs, such as gastrointestinal issues or inability to ingest formula, are also eligible, as well as babies whose mothers have certain medical issues, such as herpes infection of the breast or HIV.

From the milk bank

Mothers’ Milk doesn’t have pumping requirements for women who want donor breast milk for their babies. The milk bank also has less stringent medical need requirements than most hospitals.

Babies with medical need can receive donor milk either fully covered by insurance or on a sliding fee scale. For well babies who need temporary support with donor milk, such as during times of illness, Mothers’ Milk has a short application process to cover these babies via prescription – again with a sliding fee so ability to pay isn’t a barrier.

Breast pumping as an alternative to breastfeeding

Dr. Shivani Patel explains the advantages of exclusive pumping and why some women prefer it over breastfeeding.

Why use donor breast milk?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, mother’s milk is the best nutrition option for most babies. The next best choice is breast milk distributed by a nonprofit milk bank, and the third best option is commercial formula prepared to instructions. 

We respect a patient’s decision, whatever it may be. But we do encourage patients to try breastfeeding because of the nutritional benefits. It’s well documented that breast milk boosts infant health, especially in preemies:

  • Immunoglobulins are passed through breast milk that help the baby develop immunity to viral conditions, such as whooping cough.
  • Breast milk helps kickstart the development of gut flora, which are healthy bacteria that boost overall immune health.
  • It can also fortify autoimmune function, giving babies the ability to fight and heal from infections.
  • Studies show that breastfed babies tend to have fewer lung infections than non-breastfed babies.
Donor breast milk

Even with this information, many women don’t breastfeed up to six months as recommended by the World Health Organization.

Texas data from 2016 show that while approximately 84% of babies born in the state were breastfed at some point, only approximately 55% were still being breastfed at six months. 

We know breastfeeding can be challenging, whether a mom stays at home or pumps at work. Many patients face emotional or physical challenges at first, such as:

  • Baby or mom not getting the hang of it right away
  • Breast or nipple irritation
  • Stress, which can delay or decrease milk production
  • Past difficulties with breastfeeding

Every baby and every breastfeeding experience is unique. Having had a low breast milk volume in the past doesn’t mean you will have trouble this time. However, even if you do, we’ll encourage you to give your baby colostrum. This thick, yellowish early breast milk is packed with nutrients and health-fortifying goodness that benefits babies, particularly preemies.

It’s important to note that physical inability to breastfeed at least part-time is rare, and most women can overcome breastfeeding difficulties with help from a lactation expert. Clements University Hospital has a team of International Board Certified Lactation Consultants® (IBCLCs). These experts have the latest information and techniques to help women breastfeed successfully, whether that means exclusively breastfeeding and pumping or supplementing with formula.

Related reading5 tips for successful breastfeeding

How can I donate my breast milk?

Some donors are “superproducers” – their bodies produce a lot of extra milk. Others have frozen milk their babies don’t need, which they don’t want to go to waste. Some have experienced infant loss and want to donate in memory of their baby. And some simply want to give back to the community. 

Whatever your reason for wanting to donate, thank you.

Getting started is easy. As mentioned, all donors go through a phone screening with Mothers’ Milk, which takes about 10 minutes. Then donors will be asked to complete and return a medical history questionnaire. The next step is a simple blood draw, for which Mothers’ Milk will pay.

After they verify your health eligibility, they’ll reach out to let you know you’re approved to start pumping. You can pump at home and drop off your donation at one of 47 deposit locations. If that’s not convenient, the milk bank will supply you with storage bags, freezer packs, and shipping labels to donate your milk. Learn more.

If you’d like to visit with an Ob/Gyn about breastfeeding, donor milk, or other concerns, we’re here for you. Call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.

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