In certain circumstances, it is not possible for a mother to breastfeed or pump milk for her baby. If a baby is born very premature, the mom’s body may not be prepared yet to make milk. If a mother is very ill at the time of birth or has a communicable disease, such as HIV or hepatitis, breastfeeding will be discouraged. For a sick or premature infant, breast milk is the perfect food. Research from Neonatal Intensive Care Units, or NICUs, proves that infants nourished with breast milk have fewer complications and go home from the hospital sooner. Providing the perfect blend of protein, fats and thousands of other components, breast milk is a life-saver for a critically ill or premature infant.
Many years ago, wet nurses were hired to breastfeed infants when their own mothers could not. Today, breast milk is provided by milk banks. A milk bank is a non-profit service which collects, screens, processes, and dispenses human milk donated by nursing mothers. Currently, there are approximately 16 milk banks in North America.
About milk banks and donors
Once milk is donated to a milk bank it goes through several tests. The bacterial content is determined, if the results show a high bacterial content, the milk is discarded. Less than 10% of donor milk is discarded for high bacteria content or other contamination, almost all milk goes on to be pasteurized and distributed to infants in need. To be a milk donor, a mother needs to meet some criteria:
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- In good general health
- Willing to undergo a blood test (at the milk bank’s expense)
- Not regularly using medication or herbal supplements (with a few exceptions)
- Willing to donate 100 ounces of milk initially and continue pumping to donate as you are able (minimum donations will be different if you are shipping milk)
- Nursing an infant who is less than one year of age (bereaved or surrogate mothers are also eligible to donate)
- Able to arrange for transportation of your milk to a drop-off site, or in some cases to ship your milk to the milk bank
Being a breast milk donor is an opportunity to give a precious gift to a family in need. Some mothers make a one-time donation and others donate on an on-going basis. More donor milk is needed for hospitalized infants, only 1% of moms that pump are donating their milk to milk banks. If a limited amount of donor milk is available, it is given to the sickest infants first. Unfortunately, there are NICUs with no donor milk available and formula is the only option, placing infants at higher risk for digestive complications.