Breast milk donation: A spill-all overview of why, where, and how

33EA979D-9BA3-4DBE-A82E-49EA4C550B79When L was born very suddenly, six weeks early and with a previously undetected birth defect, I felt like my body had betrayed me. It had not been able to make my baby healthy, and it had not been able to keep him inside as long as it should have; my body had failed him. On top of that, it had spent months hiding a birth defect that should have been picked up on ultrasounds but wasn’t, and so my body had left me completely unprepared for the journey it had suddenly thrust us into.

Due to L’s surgeries and GI needs, I was not able to hold him in his first days, and I was not able to feed him at all for the first week. I felt helpless. There was nothing I could do to heal my baby, and all of the normal things you’re supposed to do to take care of a newborn had been taken away from me.

The one thing I could do was pump. And so I pumped, and pumped, and pumped.

In the middle of all that helplessness, this was one thing my body was good at. I was very fortunate in that regard. And I clung to it. I pumped before I knew what L’s diagnosis really was. I pumped before I knew whether he’d ever be able to eat anything, ever. And at the first signs of him being able to take even the tiniest 5ml bottles of milk, I pumped harder.

At my peak I was pumping upwards of 60 ounces of breast milk each day. But for the first several months of his life, L was taking less than one ounce total each day, and he didn’t approach anything near full feeds until he was approaching his first birthday.

That made for a lot of excess milk.

The NICU lactation consultants encouraged me to donate my extra milk. At first I was reluctant to part with any of it – what if he needed it?! But as we quickly filled a whole freezer in the NICU, then our entire deep freeze at home, and then our refrigerator freezer as well, and the milk just kept coming, it became clear that I needed to share the wealth.

Donating soon became a way for me to give back, to help other families in similar situations, and to make all of those hours of pumping have a purpose when it became clear that L wasn’t going to be able to use even close to all of it himself.

When I first began donating, I was unfamiliar with the process and had no idea how to differentiate between all the different milk banks. I’ve since donated more than 2,300 ounces and counting across two children – that’s nearly 18 gallons! – and I imagine other moms new to this whole thing may have similar questions, so I’m sharing what I’ve learned.

There are basically two types of milk banks: nonprofit and for-profit.

There are a lot of banks out there these days, but basically all of the legitimate, nonprofit banks in the U.S. are part of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA).

Others, like the Helping Hands Milk Bank, process milk for for-profit companies like Prolacta, who use the donated milk to manufacture high-profit human milk-based nutritional products (i.e. supplements that may be used to fortify milk given to preemies, so your milk is still going to those who need it – but at a high price). I will admit that I did send my initial donation to the Helping Hands Milk Bank, because I was not really familiar with the for-profit/nonprofit milk bank landscape at the time, and they offer a $300 breast pump reimbursement through Prolacta for anyone who qualifies and donates at least 300 ounces. So I can confirm that this particular reimbursement program is at least legitimate, and the reimbursement came as a welcome relief after my insurance company managed to weasel their way out of paying for my first pump. But personally, I would not continue donating to this type of milk bank rather than a nonprofit bank.

There’s also the Mother’s Milk Cooperative, which I’m not even going to bother linking out to. It’s of the for-profit variety, it lures people in with the option of getting paid for your milk but seems suspect in terms of actually paying out, and it has a pretty hazy reputation among online mommy groups (not to mention the fact that when I inquired there about approved supplements, a representative from the MMC replied, “While the supplements you are taking may be perfectly fine for your healthy infant, the milk we collect goes to very sick and premature infants and we must adhere to the strictest safety standards.” Which, as you can imagine, didn’t sit too well with me since I had so much milk to donate precisely because my infant had been both sick and premature.)

In any case, I currently donate through The Milk Bank in Indianapolis, which is a member of HMBANA. The Milk Bank offers “Milk Depots” for easy drop-off of milk donations in St. Louis and in Hannibal, Mo., as well as in multiple locations throughout Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.

It’s not hard to donate, if you have milk to spare.

There’s a screening process, involving:

  • An intake questionnaire
  • A form to be signed by your doctor
  • A form to be signed by your baby’s pediatrician
  • Basic bloodwork to make sure you’re a healthy donor
  • Super quick check-ins (we’re talking a 30-second email) every couple of months to see if your medications or anything else have changed.

After the screening process has been completed – and it may take a few weeks to process everything – you can simply load your milk in a cooler and drop it off at one of the depots. Alternately, they will provide coolers and a shipping label to ship your breast milk to them, if you prefer. Most banks ask for a minimum donation of 100 ounces, to justify the expense of intake processing for a new donor.

There are quite a few benefits to donating

  • You’re helping some of the tiniest and sickest babies survive and thrive.

I’ll pause here to reiterate my caution against carelessly throwing around the phrase “Breast is best!” without regard for the very complex emotions attached to all the many reasons a mother may be unable to or choose not to breastfeed. But it’s true that for preemies, breast milk does help give them the best chance at survival and at long-term health, and in many cases, preemie moms cannot induce lactation or produce sufficient milk for their baby’s needs. If you have a big supply, you can help.

Other benefits of donating include:

  • Giving back can be cathartic, especially for mothers who have experienced a traumatic birth, medical complications, or loss.
  • Many milk banks will provide supplies, including milk storage bottles, bags, and coolers, so you don’t have to cover that expense out of your own pocket.
  • You put a ton of energy into pumping, and donating your excess makes sure all that work was worth it.
  • It can be a way to teach your kids about sharing. G is still too young to understand, but L goes with me to drop off every time and he understands that we’re giving milk to help babies who are sick like he was.
  • You get your freezer space back. Remember how nice it used to be to buy in bulk?
  • Hey, you’re burning extra calories pumping all that milk! That means you get to eat more chocolate while helping babies. Everybody wins.

There are a lot of milk banks and donor programs out there, so it’s a good idea to do your research if there’s a bank you’re interested in donating through that’s not part of HMBANA. You can click here to see a full list of HMBANA locations, or learn more about human milk banking here.

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Happy Teacher/Nurse Appreciation Week!

This week is Nurses’ Week. It’s also Hospital Week, or, if you work at my office, Health Care Week, because we want to be inclusive of our friends in ambulatory and post-acute. And at L and G’s daycare and preschool, it’s Teacher/Nurse Appreciation Week. They celebrate this particular combo observance because they attend a school founded by a pediatric nurse that includes a room for children with all sorts of medical complexities, staffed by nurses; it’s only fair to celebrate both teachers and nurses in the same week, since at this school those roles overlap to such an extent.

It strikes me, as we prepare our cards and treats for Teacher/Nurse Appreciation Week, what a fitting observance this really is.

In the first days and weeks, as we began to wrap our heads around new diagnoses and devices and tests results, it was our nurses who gently helped us expand our vocabulary and patiently repeated and explained again and again until we began to enter conversations with confidence.

Nurses taught us to navigate the basics of parenting in a setting that seemed so hostile to normalcy. It was a nurse who helped me learn how to hold my child, who seemed so fragile at the time I was afraid I would break him. It was a nurse who helped me learn how to change a diaper around tubes and leads and a surgical incision and an ostomy bag, and who taught me how to change the ostomy bag as well, and, later, how to change a sterile dressing, all of which became routine baby care for our family.

Nurses, too, taught us how to fiercely preserve our normalcy despite a setting that seemed so hostile to it. It was a nurse who fought for permission to take our son for walks in the courtyard, and took the time to play photographer in an impromptu family photo shoot while we were outside. It was a nurse who encouraged us to bring in a playmat and a swing, and to establish a bedtime routine before we had even left the NICU, and stepped in to read L his bedtime story when severe storms prevented us from coming to the hospital one night.  

Those same nurses taught us how to transition home, and continued to offer listening ears and guidance off the clock as we learned to navigate difficult medical relationships and how to advocate for our child.

As parents of a child with a long medical history, we are deeply indebted for the incredible healthcare we have received from a countless string of nurses; L would not be here without them. But alongside that, every step of the way and especially in those early weeks and months, we are equally indebted to our nurses for the role they have played as our teachers. We are grateful, this week and every week, to the nurses who have equipped us with the skills and confidence to become the parents L needed.

What have you learned from nurses? Leave a comment below to share how they’ve made a difference in your life!

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