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The Benefits of Donating Breast Milk

Donated breast milk is an incredibly important part of post-natal care in the modern world. Access to donor milk allows babies who cannot breastfeed to get all the nutrients and unique benefits of human milk, helping to support their immune systems, their growth and development, and their overall health and wellbeing. There are hundreds of reasons why a new baby may not be able to breastfeed, including:

  • Premature babies are often very fragile babies, and may not have the strength to breastfeed independently.
  • Even healthy babies can also struggle to latch and find breastfeeding difficult.
  • Mothers may have difficulty breastfeeding or even find it too painful to breastfeed.
  • Mothers may experience challenges with milk production, finding it difficult breast milk to support the baby’s growth completely on their own.
  • Mothers may be unable to breastfeed as they are in recovery after longer or more complicated births.
  • Mothers may be taking medication or have underlying health conditions that mean breastfeeding is not healthy for the mother or baby.
  • Babies that are separated from their mother, for whatever reason, will need additional support feeding.

There are a variety of reasons to become a milk donor. Mothers who produce excess milk, mothers whose babies are unable to breastfeed or mothers who have lost babies but still produce breast milk are all eligible to donate breast milk, and it is something that many donors find very fulfilling.

Why is donating breast milk important?

Breast milk donation is a way for babies to receive the health benefits of human milk, regardless of whether it comes from their own mothers. Most experts agree that a newborn baby’s mother’s milk provides the best nutrition, however, donated milk still has many health benefits over traditional infant formula milk. The benefits of breast milk are numerous, and it remains the ideal milk for preterm babies and healthy babies alike. Experts recommend donated breast milk instead of formula because donated milk contains a range of different substances and nutrients that formula milk (which is derived from cow’s milk) doesn’t contain, such as:

  • Beneficial bacteria that protect the baby’s digestive system
  • Hormones that promote bonding and regulate appetite and develop healthy sleeping patterns
  • Immunoglobulins (antibodies) and enzymes that help to support the baby’s immune system
  • Long-chain fatty acids to help develop the baby’s brain, nervous system and eyes
  • Oligosaccharides (prebiotics) that support a healthy gut
  • Stem cells that may support organ development

This results in a range of benefits for babies, and donated breast milk allows babies who may not otherwise be able to breastfeed to get these benefits too!

baby breast feeding

Protection from infection and illnesses

Breast milk protects babies from infection better than formula milk, which is one of its main advantages. This is one of the key reasons that breastfeeding is so widely encouraged for new parents where possible. Babies who are breastfed are less susceptible to infections like ear infections, coughs and colds. Because of this, even healthy babies born to term may need to drink donated breast milk – and are encouraged to – if the mother is unable to breastfeed.

Necrotising enterocolitis is a severe gut condition that mostly affects premature babies. Necrotising enterocolitis is a serious problem in which the intestines necrose (meaning the cells and tissues die), which can cause significant adverse health effects even in adulthood, or even cause death in premature babies.  Compared to those who receive formula, vulnerable babies given breastmilk by their mothers or donors have a significantly reduced risk of contracting necrotising enterocolitis. Although the exact reason for this is still not known, it appears to be a protective effect of breast milk.

Gentler on baby’s digestive systems

Breastmilk is easier to digest and absorb by fragile babies than formula milk because their digestive tracts are still immature. The quantity of breastmilk given to premature babies is gradually increased as the intestinal lining matures. Sick babies who have undergone intestinal surgery often also receive the same treatment. 

Hospitalized, premature and fragile infants often receive breast milk donated by their mothers. If a baby cannot receive the mother’s milk, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends to families and medical professionals that donated human milk is next best. However, you can safely feed your baby donated breast milk regardless of whether they are unwell, premature, or healthy.

baby lying on a rug

What happens to donated breast milk?

Breast milk donors undergo careful screening before donating. Potential donors may include women who produce more milk than their babies need, leaving them with extra milk or those who have lost a baby but still produce sufficient milk. In the UK, breast milk donation is not paid – like blood donation, breast milk donors are giving their milk voluntarily to help babies who need it, which is why these donations are vital to help mothers, babies, and families who cannot breastfeed themselves.

The United Kingdom Association for Milk Banking (UKAMB), has a set of very specific protocols for screening its donors, and other healthcare providers, including the NHS, will have similarly strict guidelines. The screening process includes a thorough medical and lifestyle history evaluation, along with blood test kits for various infections, viruses and health conditions, including: 

  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) – HIV can develop into Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which is a group of diseases that causes the immune system to break down.
  • Hepatitis B & C – Hepatitis B & C are viruses that infect the liver cells and can cause inflammation of the liver.
  • Syphilis – A bacterial infection which is sexually transmitted but can also be passed on through bodily fluids like breast milk.
  • Human T Cell Lymphotropic Virus (HTLV) – HTLV can cause cancer in white blood cells (T-cell leukemia/lymphoma) over time.
  • Traces of recreational drugs or illegal drugs and tobacco products, as these can be passed on through breast milk.

While most women are screened for these conditions during pregnancy, a postnatal blood test is required as part of the donation screening process to comply with all the relevant procedures and policies for milk banks. The process of breast milk screening takes a little time (typically several weeks), so donors are advised to continue breastfeeding or pumping while the screening process is happening, in order to ensure continuous production of breast milk. 

Mothers who are selected to be milk donors are given very specific instructions regarding how to collect and send bottles of milk to the milk bank nearest them, as it is often a different process for different milk banks. Mothers will also receive a range of guidance and information from their local milk bank team, including how to clean their breasts and nipples, how to sterilize their pumps, and how to store their milk. Most donors send their milk directly to a milk bank, which distributes it to babies in need through local hospitals. 

A milk bank typically receives donor breast milk frozen, which is thawed and undergoes a medical screening process. The milk is then pasteurised, cooled, and re-frozen. Samples are screened again after pasteurisation to make sure that bacteria hasn’t grown to dangerous levels during the process of defrosting and refreezing. While some nutritional value is lost during the pasteurisation process, it is not enough to affect the milk’s nutritional value, and frozen milk is the most effective and least wasteful form of human milk banking and human milk storage.

Donating Breast Milk UK

Breast milk donations in the UK can be given at a range of centres, including at milk banks in local hospitals and independent milk banks. The UKAMB has a full list of the network of milk banks, healthcare providers and local hospitals in the UK that are accepting donations, which is a valuable tool for those looking to find their closest milk bank and donate breast milk. 

There are a few things that may disqualify women from becoming breast milk donors, including failure at any stage of the screening process. Human milk donations have to be completely safe before being given to babies, especially premature of sick babues, as their immune systems are not fully developed, and so any of the infections, viruses and health conditions that may be passed on through donor milk can have devastating effects. This is why blood tests are carried out on donors, as well as screening in the milk bank to ensure the highest possible safety standards. Breast milk donors are also required to disclose any medication or herbal supplements that may affect their breast milk when applying to be a donor.  

As well as blood tests, lifestyle questionnaires and medical history questionnaires, donor mothers must have a consistent milk supply when they first start donating. This allows milk banks to better align their resources and ensure that the babies who need donated breast milk the most have access to it. The volume of donations is not as important as the consistency of donations when it comes to breast milk donations. 

The vast majority of donated breast milk is frozen before it is sent to milk bank staff – milk donors will freeze their milk at home and send it to the hospitals and milk banks frozen.

baby in hospital

How Li-Lac by Savant can help hospitals and milk banks manage their breastmilk donations

The Savant Li-Lac product helps hospitals and milk banks appropriately, simply and safely manage breast milk donations through a comprehensive tracking and labelling system. This allows milk bank staff and breast milk donors to quickly and incredibly accurately track every single bottle of donated breast milk, all the way from donors to babies.

To find out more about Savant, Li-Lac or breast milk tracking and labelling, please don’t hesitate to get in touch – our expert team are always happy to help.

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