Many surrogates have questions about donating breast milk after their surrogacy pregnancy. Sometimes, intended parents will ask a surrogate to pump milk. If the intended parents do not request the added service, the surrogate may choose to donate her breast milk after her surrogacy journey.
Donating human milk can have a life-saving impact for babies born everyday. In the United States, 450,000 babies are born prematurely every year, and others struggle with serious illness. These fragile babies will survive and thrive thanks to the generosity of human milk donors who give the critical nourishment they need.
We spoke with Lenna Gregory of Mother’s Milk Bank in Denver to find out how to donate milk after your pregnancy.
What is Mothers’ Milk Bank?
Mothers’ Milk Bank is a Colorado-based organization with a nationwide reach. We help babies across the country. We’re committed to providing safe, screened donor human milk to the most fragile of infants in neonatal intensive care nurseries across the country. We want to ensure that all babies have access to this precious resource.
We are a founding member of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, a nonprofit oversight organization that establishes all of our safety and processing guidelines and protocols, and we have grown to be one of the largest nonprofit milk banks in North America.
How did Mothers’ Milk Bank start?
It all started with just one Denver mom, Joyce Ann. In 1983, she delivered a premature baby in the hospital and didn’t have any alternatives other than formula to feed her baby. She wanted him to have an exclusive human milk diet, so she teamed up with Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS, FAAP., who was our founding physician, and together they started a milk bank. Joyce Ann made it her mission to ensure other premature babies had access to donor human milk.
How do breast milk donations help?
About 80% of our milk goes out into hospitals into either neonatal intensive care units or mom/baby units where it’s serving as that bridge for moms for the first few days before their milk comes in. The remaining 20% of the milk is sent to outpatients who are often babies with a medical need for human milk whose moms are not able to fully supply their needs. I’m proud to say that we’re serving babies and families across the country, from Florida to the Midwest, to Colorado, Nebraska, and all the way to Alaska!
How many ounces of milk has Mothers’ Milk Bank donated so far?
Over our history, we have dispensed over 6 million ounces of breast milk. In 2021, we had donations of over 680,000 ounces of milk. Those are huge numbers. To put that into perspective, that is enough milk to feed 820 full term babies for a month!
How can people donate milk to help save these babies?
Our primary mission is always to make sure that we’re keeping those tiny and fragile babies safe. We have a process that moms that are interested in donating go through. First, they do a 10–15 minute verbal screening where we talk about donation guidelines, including how the milk is pumped and stored. Then, they complete a written screening form electronically with more in-depth information about lactation and medical history. Next, they are sent for blood work, for the same work-up that is done for blood donors. Once we have the blood results, the donor’s milk is sent to our main location where it is put through our processing system. We have a clean room lab that is used to process the milk that eliminates infectious agents from the milk like viruses and most bacteria. It’s a research-based process that has been proven over the course of the past 30 years to do the best job of eliminating potential dangers in the milk while still maintaining as many of the nutrition properties, antibodies, and all of those immune protective factors that we want the babies to get.
Learn more about the breast milk donation process.
For surrogates, if their intended parents don’t want them to pump for the surrogate baby, how can they donate their milk after their surrogacy journey?
We would love to have them as donors and encourage them to call us to start the process! We work with donors across the nation. We always try to make the donation process as simple as possible for them. Everything is either done over the phone or forms can be filled out electronically, meaning there’s no need for them to come into an office. The only thing that requires her physical presence is the blood draw and, for this, we have a contract with a commercial lab for our donors to access, with locations across the nation. We also offer some other alternatives for the blood draw and donors can even go into their own personal provider. We do as much as we can to make that as easy as possible for donors to get their milk to us.
We have donation centers across the country that they can drop off at or she can ship her milk to us directly. The first step is to call us to discuss our guidelines and then we can get them moving through the process. We ask our donors to commit to a donation of at least 150 ounces of milk, which may sound like a lot but is equivalent to a plastic grocery bag filled with milk. For a lot of women who have been pumping regularly, it can be very manageable when done over time. It does not need to be in a single donation, either. Donors are eligible up to 18 months postpartum as long as they have expressed milk at least four times in the last 24 hours. So we have a lot of time to collect that amount of milk depending on the donor’s needs and interests.
There’s definitely no ceiling on how much you can donate, and it can be a one-time donation or it can be ongoing. It really is about whatever works for that individual donor.
What kind of support can you offer potential surrogate milk donors?
We have several lactation counselors and an IBLCE certified lactation consultant on staff. We’re here to support and answer any questions that anyone has, not just donors. We’re proud to provide that service to anyone who calls and has questions. We supply donors with milk storage bags and steam sanitizing bags, and we do our best to make sure that we’re covering all of the expenses that they may have when completing the screening and approval process as well as getting that milk to us.
How can a surrogate who gifts her breast milk make a difference?
She is making a tremendous difference! So much of the donated milk is going into hospitals. You can just imagine that if someone’s baby ends up in the intensive care nursery, it’s one of the worst days of their parent’s life. We’re meeting parents on what is probably one of the hardest days of their life. I have a story from a mother in Colorado who wrote to us, “My son was born at 35 weeks after my water broke spontaneously and he needed to stay in the NICU for 12 days. This was a challenging time for my family. I had planned to breastfeed from the beginning, however, due to my son’s NICU stay and decreased alertness, I had to pump to provide my baby with breast milk so that he could take a bottle or receive milk through a feeding tube at the start of his life. It took time for my milk to come in. And so I received the wonderful gift of donated milk until my own milk could come in. I am blessed to have been able to have this as an option for my son and I only hope that my donation can help other premature babies in the NICU, like my little boy.”
Is there anything specific that a donor needs to do for collection or storage of the milk?
We ask for good, clean food handling techniques including making sure she washes her hands before she pumps, uses clean pump parts, and washes those pump parts between uses. The milk also needs to be frozen within 72 hours of when it was pumped and stored in a container that’s designed for breast milk.
Find out more about breast milk collection and storage.
How can they drop off their donations?
The milk is not typically out of the freezer for very long. Most people are using donation centers pretty close to them where the drive is not longer than a trip you would take to the grocery store. For that timeframe, it’s fine for the milk to be out of the freezer. If it’s summer, however, and you live in a place that’s really hot, we’ll have you put the milk in a cooler to drop it off to your donation center. When we have donors ship directly to us, we send them an insulated box that is specially designed for our needs which helps to keep the milk frozen during shipping.
You have over 70 milk donation and outreach centers in the United States. Can women from anywhere donate and how can they find a center that’s close to them?
We have donation centers across the country and outreach centers in 14 states. People can visit our website at www.milkbankcolorado.org, and all of our donation centers are listed there. If you are not located near one of those donation centers, we can always make arrangements to ship your milk to us directly or to refer to one of our sister milk banks. Our goal is to provide milk to babies. I’m happy to help you with the process and make it as convenient as possible for donors!
What are some of the best practices like the dos and don’ts for pumping to donate milk?
I have a pretty short list for that and clean handling of the milk is the big one. First, warm, soapy water is your friend. Make sure that you wash your hands before you pump and clean pump parts after every single use. Second, always freeze the milk promptly. And third, regularly express your milk and maintain good nutrition. Human milk is such an amazing thing, so there isn’t anything specifically that moms need to be doing aside from eating foods filled with great nutrients to help them make great milk.
Milk donation is truly moms helping other moms out, right?
Due to a lot of the visitation restrictions that we’ve had with COVID, new parents can’t have a lot of family members in the hospital with them. It’s often that a mom who just delivered her baby is really vulnerable, feeling all the normal postpartum effects and emotions along with having a baby that’s hospitalized. To be in that situation alone is really frightening for these moms. Having donor milk available to them is a huge gift. In their moment of need, they know that someone gave them the gift of their own milk. It’s definitely a community of moms who are providing for these moms in need and to know that someone else has donated so that their baby can have the best nutrition to start is comforting.
Many donors will come full circle; they were mothers who received donated milk when in the hospital. They want to donate because they received that gift when their baby was in the hospital.
Additionally, about 4% of our donors are donating milk after the loss of a baby. These women are ones with really touching stories. For those moms, it is often very soothing for them and to be able to pump their milk and be able to donate it to help other families that are in similar situations to theirs is part of their grieving process.
These are always the stories that stick with me the most; the people that say that they received milk in the hospital and have been inspired to donate going forward. It’s amazing how a tiny bit of milk that they receive really encourages them throughout their own breastfeeding journey. Delivering a baby is hard and having a newborn at home is hard and it’s exhausting. Knowing that you’ve got that community of women around you supporting you to get breastfeeding off to a good start means so much to them and they want to give back.
Learn more about how moms and surrogates can donate their breast milk with Mothers’ Milk Bank.