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Got (Extra) Milk?? Consider Breastmilk Donation

About 4 weeks after Callum was born, I started dutifully pumping after his morning nursing session to start my “freezer stash.”  Like many nursing mamas, I had fears of sudden supply issues that would necessitate “dipping into my stash” – so I wanted to have a good back up supply on hand.  A week later, I had to return to my PhDing duties – which meant returning to class and my assistantship.   My schedule never required me to be gone for long though – usually only 4-5 hours at a time a few times a week.  While I was gone, Callum enjoyed pumped milk with Jesse and I lugged my good ‘ole double electric along to where ever I happened to be headed.

Pretty soon it became apparent that I was one of those mamas blessed with an overabundance of breastmilk (props to my A cups!).  I continued to pump once a morning and then again whenever Callum ate – I was pumping at least twice as much as he took from the bottle.  I eventually dropped my morning pump, and still stayed way ahead of his demands when I was gone.  As a result, I ended up with a freezer full of milk that had never been touched.

Since we don’t have a deep freezer, my milk was only good for 3 months (see these helpful guidelines for storing breastmilk), which meant a bunch of liquid gold was getting close to expiring.  The thought of tossing all those bags was not a pleasant one – but what was the alternative?

I’d heard of breastmilk banks and donating breastmilk before, but didn’t know much about the process.  When I started looking for information over a year ago, it was actually pretty hard to find – I had to do quite a bit of digging just to come up with a phone number.  Since then, the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) has launched a very helpful website with good information about donation as well as contact information for all their milk bank locations.

The first step towards donation is contacting a milk bank near you.  I happen to live a short distance from one of the HMBANA branches, but they do provide shipping materials if you don’t.  And, according to their website, new milk banks are in the works; the number will nearly double in the near future.    Your closest milk bank may be in another state – but don’t let that stop you from giving them a call.

Most milk banks require a minimum donation of 100 ounces; mine required 200.  When I first called, I only had around 100 ounces and was asked to call back when I got close to 200.  At that point, I was given a brief telephone screening – general questions about my health and kiddo’s health.  They then mailed me a packet of information, including instructions on where to go for a blood draw (at their expense to screen for blood-born diseases) and forms for my doctor and kiddo’s pediatrician to sign (to verify that we were in good health).  Once those tasks were completed, I was given the go ahead to bring in my donation.

Altogether I spent a couple of hours setting everything up, doing the screening, and completing paperwork – a pretty easy process.  After I made my first donation, I was provided milk bags and encouraged to donate again if I was able.  Sadly, our freezer died shortly before I was about to make my second drop off – and all my milk thawed and had to be thrown out.  I had pretty much stopped pumping by that point so I didn’t make another donation (there’s always next time!).

Breastmilk donated to a milk bank is screened, combined with other donor milk, and pasteurized.  It is then distributed primarily to hospitals for use with premature babies, sick babies, or other infants with formula allergies or sensitives.  The downside to milk bank milk is the cost; for sick infants, the cost may be covered by insurance.  But for a mother who is unable to nurse but has a healthy infant, milk bank milk may be a prohibitively expensive alternative to formula.

There is another option for those interested in donating breastmilk who are unable or not interested in going through an official milk bank.  Milk Share is an organization that puts donors in contact with families looking for breastmilk.  Unlike a milk bank, it is entirely up to the recipient family to ensure that the donated milk is safe.  And unlike milk bank milk, the donor milk is free as it comes directly from the donor.  I was personally less comfortable with this option as it requires a good deal of trust between donor and recipient – the milk is not screened or treated and the donor is not anonymous and therefore protected from an unhappy recipient.  To be fair, I’ve never heard a negative milk share story – only positive ones – so it is an option worth considering if you are interested in donation.

Many within the breastfeeding community feel that donor milk should be a more viable option for mamas who are unable to nurse for whatever reason.  If milk donation were more common, the cost of milk bank milk would go down – making it an affordable alternative to formula.   The increasing number of HMBANA locations indicates that donation is on the rise.  Hopefully, this trend will continue so that more babies can benefit from the wonders of breastmilk.

If you are a pumping mama with an excess sitting in your freezer, please consider donation.  If even half of all pumping mamas made a donation of 200 ounces, that would have a huge impact on the number of babies able to receive donor milk – and it would help to reduce the cost for those families.  Even if you are unable to donate yourself, you can help spread the word about donation – it isn’t something that receives much publicity and word of mouth is a very effective means of spreading the word.

Finally, I wanted to share an inspirational story about donation that I stumbled across in my initial search for milk donation information.  You’ll need a tissue, but it strongly illustrates the power of a mama’s love.

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Published in Breastfeeding Take Action