Informal Human-Milk Donation: How to Counsel Patients

Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD, MPH


June 01, 2022

Alexa Mieses Malchuk, MD, MPH

I have become obsessed with the reality that the unprecedented national shortage of formula is keeping some families from adequately feeding their infants and young children. I am deeply concerned, both as a family medicine physician and a new mother, about the heartbreaking stories that I've heard from parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds. New mothers, unable to breastfeed for a multitude of reasons, find themselves standing in front of empty store shelves, in tears.

In recent months, many healthcare providers have had patients disclose that they are diluting ready-to-feed formula or mixing powdered formula with more water than instructed to make it go further. Some parents are giving cow's milk to their children at too young an age because they can't find formula. Others are foregoing milk altogether and feeding their children beverages such as juice or soda. All of these practices can threaten a child's life, growth, and development.

When Breastfeeding Isn't Possible

We all know that human milk is the optimal, most nutritionally complete food source for newborn babies and infants. It can improve dental health and neurodevelopmental outcomes, as well as reduce the risk for asthma, eczema, diabetes, and obesity. An added benefit during the COVID-19 pandemic has been providing newborn infants with a boost of immunity before they are able to be vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 infection.

But lactation and breastfeeding aren't possible for everyone. Earlier this year, when my daughter was born more than a month prematurely, I worried that I would be unable to breastfeed her. The complications of prematurity can interfere with establishing lactation, and my daughter spent some time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), requiring frequent feedings to treat hypoglycemia. She also lacked the muscle strength or coordination to latch on to the breast, so she was fed my colostrum and donor breast milk by bottle.

Not knowing when my mature milk would come in, my family scoured the retail stores for formula while I was still recovering from delivery. My daughter needed a specific type of high-calorie formula for premature infants. Eventually, my mother found one can of this powdered formula. The hospital also sent us home with 16 oz of ready-to-feed samples and enough donor breastmilk to last 24 hours at home. We considered ourselves lucky. The fear and anxiety about being able to feed my baby still stands out in my mind.

Pumping and Sharing

Over the next few months, out of necessity, I became an "exclusively pumping" mother. My daughter, unable to latch, drank my pumped milk from a bottle. My body started to produce more milk than she needed in a day. In an effort to pay it forward and to put my extra milk to use, I became a human-milk donor. I underwent rigorous screening, including testing for infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C. I was approved to donate to our local hospital's milk bank, helping other families in the NICU feed their babies. Through informal connections on the internet, I also provide expressed milk to another mother in the community who is unable to lactate. To date, I've donated more than 1500 oz of human milk (and counting).

The practice of human-milk donation dates back millennia with wet-nursing, when children were breastfed by someone other than their biological mothers: relatives, friends, or even strangers. The first milk bank in the United States opened in Boston in the early 20th century. In 1980, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund released a joint statement supporting the use of human-donor milk as the first alternative if the biological mother is unable to breastfeed. Donor milk is a safe option for families who cannot provide their own human milk to their children.

Human-Milk Banks

More than 30 nonprofit milk banks now operate in the United States. Because their mission is primarily to meet the needs of sick and hospitalized children rather than the general public, these milk banks are an impractical solution to the national formula shortage. Although families with healthy children can purchase donor milk with a prescription, supplies are scarce, and insurance doesn't cover the cost.

Milk provided by formal human-milk banks is considered safe. Certain infections such as HIV and hepatitis can be transmitted through human milk. However, milk banks screen their donors and safely pasteurize and store donated breastmilk, following standard protocols. The risk of contracting an illness from banked donor milk is very low. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends accepting donor milk only from a milk bank.

Informal Human-Milk Donation

An increasingly popular alternative to formal human-milk banks is informal human-milk sharing. But many people, including healthcare professionals, hold misconceptions about how informal milk donation works. Today's informal milk donation looks very different today from age-old wet-nursing: Moms in support groups, often via social media ,are requesting pumped milk from one another. (Note that this definition of "informal human-milk donation" does not include selling or purchasing human milk.)

Although the safety of sharing pumped human milk this way cannot be guaranteed, a harm-reduction approach is warranted, especially in view of the current formula scarcity.

I believe that medical professionals have a responsibility to raise awareness and dispel myths about donor breast milk. Many physicians acknowledge that informal milk sharing is common but rarely recommend it to patients. Whether they are donors or recipients, families who choose to participate need to be educated about how to go about the process as safely as possible.

Patients who are considering accepting informally donated human milk should ask key questions of the donor to gauge the risk of pathogens or other harmful substances being passed to their babies:

  • What medications do you take?

  • What supplements do you take?

  • What recreational drugs do you take?

  • Any recent travel?

  • Any tattoos and if so, how recent?

  • How much alcohol do you drink and how often?

  • Have you been diagnosed with any infections?

  • Any recent illness?

  • How do you pump your breast milk?

  • How do you store your breast milk?

  • When was the available milk pumped?

We can help families by offering our medical expertise, allowing them to make an informed decision about whether to accept donated human milk. Clinicians can encourage patients and their families to use resources like the Infant Risk Center, which provides evidence-based information about medication safety and breast milk.

If your lactating patient is considering donating milk through informal channels to a family in need, encourage them to be open and honest about their medical history and lifestyle habits. If they cannot be transparent, they should not donate. A mutual level of respect and honesty can ensure the safety of those they hope to help. It is also important to counsel prospective milk donors to notify their milk recipients of any new illnesses, substance use, medications, travel, tattoos, or changes to their medical history.

Finally, encourage lactating patients who are able to do so to donate their extra milk to local nonprofit milk banks to increase the availability of screened, pasteurized breast milk in the community.

As a physician and mother, I hope that US families will be less vulnerable to future formula shortages. Human milk is an ideal food source, but not everyone can lactate. Though not perfect, human milk donated outside of formal milk banks offers a safer alternative to diluting formula or feeding other unsuitable beverages to infants and children. As healthcare professionals, we need to counsel our patients about how to engage in this practice safely.

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