How to Donate or Receive Breastmilk

And how to safely store breastmilk if you’re donating or accepting donor milk

December 12th 2022

Did you know you could donate or receive breast milk to support feeding your baby? Not many parents outside of those with medically fragile babies in the NICU even know that human milk sharing is available to them! In the NICU, breast milk is sourced from formal Milk Banks which I’ll talk more about below.

Many families outside the NICU are quick to resort to formula instead of human milk because chances are, they didn’t even know they could access it. In 2019 when my first baby was born, it was suggested I use formula to supplement my baby with. I immediately asked if donor milk was an option and was told no because he was a healthy term baby born outside of the hospital. I didn’t know I could informally source milk from another local mom so we supplemented with formula.

This post will cover how to find a donor or recipient, milk bank donation, questions you should ask a donor as well as safe storage guidelines if you are donating or receiving.

How to find milk to donate or receive

There’s two ways to go about breastmilk sharing, informal or formal. Informal is mom to mom/parent to parent. There’s no one monitoring or regulating anything. You could donate to family, neighbours or even strangers. You’re taking this person for their word about what the have or have not been consuming/their health status if you’re accepting their milk.

It’s a donation basis and you can meet up with them locally to pick up or alternatively ship the milk to them. You need to find this person on your own and it’s completely up to you to ask them about their lifestyle habits. You can find a donor by joining a local mom Facebook group or your local Human Milk 4 Human Babies Facebook group. Another is Eats on Feets. You can search “human milk for human babies + [your city name]” to see what comes up for you. You may need to join a local region rather than a specific city one depending on where you live. Once you’re accepted into these groups you can post that you either have or are looking for breast milk.

Formal is going through a milk bank (such as the Human Milk Banking Association of North America) which has very strict guidelines. Only milk from those people who pass these strict screening guidelines are accepted. It requires a blood test in addition to other screenings (including a phone screening) to be able to donate. They will send you a box to donate (once you’ve passed all the tests) and typically require a large volume of 100-150oz. Once this milk is received at the donation centre, it’s all pooled and undergoes pasteurization. This pasteurization is to remove any harmful bacteria and pathogens like viruses. lt’s is often reserved for infants in the NICU and you need a prescription to access it.

Informal donation: What to ask your donor

So you’ve found a donor inside a Facebook group! Before you accept their milk, you should ask them questions about their habits, lifestyle and how they collect milk and care for their pump parts to ensure you feel good about receiving their milk.

Questions you should ask include:

  • What supplements and/or medications they take
  • If they consume caffeine and or alcohol
  • Do they smoke
  • If they have any recent recreational drug use
  • Many moms want to know Covid vaccine status which you can also ask about
  • Ask about how they collect and store the milk to ensure they have proper cleaning, handling and storage techniques (example: how do they wash their pump parts, how often are they washed, how long is the milk in the fridge before it’s frozen)

Never pay for breastmilk unless it’s from a milk bank. This is because it can easily be altered with water (which is dangerous for your baby) and/or people can make claims like “high fat milk” – something they cannot prove. You can offer a donor of a very large donation or a long term donor the option of replacing pumping bags for them. It’s not essential but is a nice gesture.

My Story

I shared at the start of this post that I asked about donor milk when my first was born but had no idea I could access it from another mom so we used formula. My first breastfeeding experience changed my life in more ways than one but one thing it did do, was make me think about donating the next time I had a baby.

As I write this, I have been able to donate over 80oz of milk (over 2300mL). The first 50oz (about 1478 mL) went to one baby in need and the next 30oz (887mL) or so went to a second. I thought a lot about donating milk during my pregnancy because I know first hand how hard breastfeeding can be but I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to pump to be able to create an oversupply to donate. In order to donate milk and have my baby be exclusively breastfed, I needed to make more than what he needed so pumping and removing milk outside of 8-12+ nursings a day would be needed.

After my baby was born I used lots of hand expression and some pumping to help ensure my production remained high enough so that we didn’t have to supplement through his feeding difficulties. I would collect 1 oz maybe 2oz (30-60mL) every other day or so and I would just freeze it because my son was exclusively nursing. As his sleep patterns changed and he began sleeping 3-4 hours overnight, my body would wake me up before him so I would just hand express until I was comfortable and save that milk.

That adds up pretty quickly and before I knew it I had over 50oz in my freezer and my son was exclusively nursing. So I joined my local Human Milk for Human Babies group on Facebook and shared that I had milk available for donation. I ended up reaching out to a mom who posted she was in need because no one had responded to my post (it’s a big group and posts are easily missed!) She had a few extra questions for me around how I collected and stored the milk. From there, we made an arrangement for her to come pick it up from me. The second donation followed a very similar process.

These will likely be the only two families I help as I am no longer collecting milk. As someone who struggled with her first breastfeeding journey and through that experience realized my call to become an IBCLC, it feels so wonderful to be able to support other moms and babies in need beyond my everyday role.

Safe Storage Guidelines

Knowing how to safely store milk is important whether you’re storing milk to donate or accepting donor milk to feed to your baby. Freshly expressed milk should be frozen within 4 days. Always label the milk bag with the date it was expressed and how much is in the bag. Freeze the milk in small amounts of 2 to 4 ounces to avoid wasting any. Breastfed babies consume an average of 2-4 oz per feeding of milk from 1-6 months old – depending on how often they feed in 24 hours. After 6 months it actually doesn’t change much either this is just when solids are introduced to help meet their nutritional needs.

Ideally, store milk in the back of the freezer (or refrigerator before it’s frozen) and not in the door. This is because the temperature is most consistent at the back. When freezing, leave an inch of space at the top of the container; breast milk expands as it freezes. Lay the bags down flat to freeze them as a “brick”. This makes for easier storage later.

Frozen milk can be stored in an insulated cooler bag with frozen ice packs for up to 24 hours when you are traveling to collect milk from a donor or dropping it off to a recipient.

Thawing: Always thaw the oldest milk first. Thaw milk under lukewarm running water, in a container of lukewarm water, or overnight in the refrigerator. Never thaw or heat milk in a microwave. Microwaving creates hot spots which can burn a baby’s mouth. Use milk within 24 hours of thawing in the refrigerator (from the time it is completely thawed, not from the time when you took it out of the freezer). Use thawed milk within 2 hours of bringing to room temperature or warming.

Never refreeze thawed milk. If you lose power to your freezer, and the milk begins to thaw, as long as there are ice crystals in the milk it can safely be re-frozen. 

Feeding: Milk can be served cold, room temperature, or warm. All babies have different preferences. To heat milk, place the sealed container into a bowl of warm water or hold under warm running water. Do not heat milk directly on the stove or in the microwave. Alternatively, you can use a bottle warmer if you have one but you can make do without one. Test the temperature before feeding it to your baby by putting a few drops on your wrist. It should feel warm, not hot.

If you have any questions or concerns, reach out to me.

A few final thoughts

Only you know if sourcing donor milk or wanting to donate feels right for you and your baby. It can be an amazing gift to provide for a mother and baby in need. It also feels great on the receiving end to be able to provide your baby with the powers of breastmilk.

If you do informally source donor milk, be sure to ask the donor questions. If they’re not willing to answer all your questions, they’re not the donor for you.

Interested in learning more about breastfeeding including tips and tricks to help things feel easier for both you and your baby?
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