Whether you want to donate your breastmilk to help other parents in need—or you’re hoping to locate donated breast milk for your own baby—we can help! Here’s everything you need to know about donating breastmilk—and using milk banks to feed your baby.

What’s a breastmilk bank?

Breastmilk banks (aka human milk banks) are where lactating individuals can donate their own breastmilk to be pasteurized and stored for someone else’s use. Donors are usually folks who are producing excess milk or those with a surplus of frozen breastmilk that their baby simply doesn’t need. There are two types of milk banks:

  • Nonprofit: The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) sets safety guidelines for donor milk. They have 28 milk banks across the country and three in Canada actively accepting donations. You can find a local breastmilk bank through their directory or call nearby hospitals to see if they have a partnership with an HMBANA bank.

  • Commercial: For-profit commercial breastmilk banks also collect, pasteurize, and distribute donor milk. However, because they’re not part of HMBANA, commercial banks aren’t held to the same strict safety and quality standards as banks under the HMBANA umbrella.

How to donate breastmilk to a milk bank:

Last year, 13,000 individuals donated nearly 9.2 million ounces of breastmilk to HMBANA, which was 22% more than in 2020. Those numbers are expected to rise thanks to the outpouring of generosity that has gone hand-in-hand with the nation’s devastating baby formula shortage. To donate your breastmilk to a HMBANA-certified milk bank, contact HMBANA. They’ll explain their screening and donating process, which looks something like this:

  • Get pre-screened. A milk bank representative will ask about your current health, your health history, your medication and herbal supplement use, your drug, tobacco, and alcohol use, how much breastmilk you’re considering donating (some milk banks have minimum donation requirements), and more.

  • Take a blood test. All would-be breastmilk donors need to be screened for HIV, syphilis, Human T-lymphotropic virus 1 (HTLV), plus hepatitis B and C…all of which may be transferred to Baby through breastmilk. (The tests are paid for by the milk bank.)

  • Safely collect and store breastmilk. Once you’re approved for donation, the milk bank will offer detailed instructions on safely pumping and storing your milk. You’ll be asked to store pumped breastmilk in sterilized containers, like breast milk storage bags or containers that they ship directly to you, and freeze your breastmilk within 24 to 48 hours.

  • Ask about your already-frozen milk. If you want to donate from your already-frozen stash, you likely can. Many milk banks accept breastmilk that’s been expressed and frozen prior to screening if it’s clearly labeled and less than 6 to 10 months old.

  • Send breastmilk to the bank. If you live near the breastmilk bank, you may be able to hand deliver your liquid gold—or arrange for a pick-up. If your breastmilk needs to be shipped, you’ll be given instructions and supplies, like dry ice. (Milk banks pay for shipping.)

  • Screen and pasteurize breastmilk. All donor milk that passes through a HMBANA-certified bank is pasteurized and then tested for quality-control and safety.

Do you get paid to donate breastmilk?

Nonprofit HMBANA milk banks do not pay their donors. They do, however, cover breastmilk testing and shipping costs. Commercial milk banks cover testing and shipping costs too, and some pay or donate money on your behalf. For example, Tiny Treasures Milk Bank compensates milk donors with $1 per ounce of breastmilk and Helping Hands Milk Bank contributes $1 per ounce of donated milk to the Susan G. Komen foundation.

Who can use breastmilk from a milk bank?

Breastmilk banks give highest priority to the most vulnerable recipients: premature infants who cannot digest baby formula, hospitalized micro preemies (born on or before 26 weeks), and other medically fragile newborns who are unable to rely on their birth parent for adequate sustenance. Research shows that exclusive breastmilk feeding significantly reduces the incidence of a devastating intestinal disease called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which is a leading cause of prematurity-related death.

Additionally, sometimes healthy, full-term newborns receive donor breastmilk while in the hospital as a bridge until the birth parent’s milk comes in. A 2018 report in Breastfeeding Medicine, found that many birth hospitals in the northeast use donor milk in this way to increase the rate of exclusive breastfeeding. Outside of a hospital setting, babies may be able to receive donor milk from a breastmilk bank if the baby’s:

  • Failing to thrive on formula

  • Immune system is failing

  • Adopted

  • In foster care

  • Born in surrogacy

  • Lactating parent is ill, has died, or is otherwise absent

  • Lactating parent is having difficulty breastfeeding

More often than not, you’ll need to get a prescription from your baby’s pediatrician in order to access breastmilk from a milk bank. However, some banks do allow a one-time “withdrawal” of a specific number of ounces without a prescription. Once you reach that max milk amount, a prescription is required to receive more breastmilk.

Can you donate breastmilk directly to those in need?

Besides milk banks, there’s peer-to-peer or community breastmilk donation, which is milk sharing between individuals. Here, there’s no testing, pasteurizing, or oversight. While cutting out the go-between and donating directly to folks in need may be tempting, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not recommend this type of informal milk-sharing because it lacks important testing and pasteurization that keeps babies safe. Remember, viruses like HIV, hepatitis, and other bloodborne pathogens can be transferred through breastmilk.

Is it safe to use breastmilk directly from donors?

If you’re considering getting donated breastmilk via a local Facebook group, a community listserv, a neighbor, or an organization like Eats on Feets, know that the AAP and the FDA urge parents not to do this. This “off the books” breastmilk has not been screened for bacteria or disease and is not pasteurized. Plus, there’s the risk that the breastmilk may be diluted with cow’s milk or water, which doesn’t meet a baby’s nutritional needs and is dangerous. And definitely think twice before shelling out to a donor: Research has shown that breastmilk sold through the internet is often more problematic than milk sharing.

With that, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) recognizes that informal milk sharing within the community is an increasingly common practice—and they encourage all who go this route to adhere to their safety guidelines.

  • Medically screen all breastmilk donors. That means, the milk donor needs to be in good health, not on any meds or herbal supplements that are incompatible with breastfeeding, and negative for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and HTLV-1. Milk donors should not use illegal drugs, marijuana, or tobacco products, including nicotine gum, the patch, and e-cigarettes. They should consume little alcohol (less than 1.5 ounces of hard liquor or spirits, 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 10 ounces of wine coolers daily) and be at low risk for HIV.

  • Follow all safe milk-handling practices. Cleanliness and proper temperature are both key! Here are ABM’s official protocols.

  • Be informed about pasteurization. Talk to your healthcare provider about home pasteurization of donated breastmilk. While this can decrease some of the beneficial components of breastmilk, it also reduces Baby’s risk of infections.

How much does breastmilk cost?

Donor breastmilk for healthy babies is not often covered by insurance, but it may be covered if your baby has a documented medical need. Right now, donor breastmilk from HMBANA-accredited milk banks are covered for military families whose infants meet certain criteria, such as having an infant formula intolerance. At the same time, 14 states plus the District of Columbia offer Medicaid coverage for donor breastmilk under certain circumstances. Finally, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey, and New York require commercial insurance plans to cover donor human milk for specific infants, such as those at an elevated risk for high risk of NEC. Call your insurance provider to see what, if anything, you might qualify for.

Without insurance, donor breast milk can cost anywhere from $3.50 to $5 per ounce. Some milk banks may offer financial assistance to those in need, such as Mother’s Milk Bank of Northeast. Ask the milk banks near you if they offer the same.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.