Modern medicine indicates that the ideal source of nourishment for an infant is mother’s milk. Yet for numerous reasons, some mothers cannot provide this preferred source of nutrition. A milk supply may not be established quickly enough for the mother of a premature infant to nurse. For other mothers, disease, past breast surgery, or other medical problems can prevent breastfeeding or expressing milk. If a child of one of these mothers or a child adopted by a non-lactating mother is seriously ill, human milk donated from a generous and healthy mom can be a safe and sometimes lifesaving alternative.
What Is a Human Milk Donor Bank?
Before the development of infant formulas, a child whose mother was unable to breastfeed could die without the help of a wet nurse—a lactating woman who would nurse another’s baby.
As wet nurses became less popular (partially due to the belief that wet nurses transmitted disease), the milk bank was born as a way to provide human milk to children desperately needing it. Then in 1911, Boston, Massachusetts, became home to the first milk bank in the US. Back then, unwed mothers were paid to donate their breast milk, and many hospitals practiced pasteurization and screening to ensure milk was free from disease and safe to use. As technology improved, so did the banks’ methods of sterilizing, pasteurizing, storing, freezing, and delivering human milk.
In 1985, a non-profit organization known as The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) was established to “review and revise guidelines for donor milk banking, share information among experts on human milk, provide information to the medical community, act as a clearinghouse for member milk banks and encourage research on the unique properties of human milk.”