Many women who pump for their babies often find that they have way more than their baby will ever consume. It is at this point that the thought of donating that extra milk to a needy baby comes to mind.
There are three ways of milk donation that are available so far:
- Informal milk donation, mother-to-mother
- Formal milk donation to a HMBANA milk bank, to help babies in the NICU
- Formal milk donation to Prolacta Bioscience, a for-profit milk processing company, usually through a milk depot that calls itself a “milk bank”
Breastmilk donation is one of the most beautiful, pure, and selfless acts a mother could do for another. Unfortunately, some people are exploiting this generosity and using it for their own ends. If you are a mother intent on donating your excess breast milk to help a needy baby, one option that will allow you to be sure that your intended recipient is a baby and not a for-profit milk processing company is informal milk donation. Informal milk donation is when you donate your breastmilk directly to the family that will be feeding their baby with it. The biggest hurdle with this for most milk donors and recipients seems to be finding a family near them that either needs milk or has a surplus of it.
The best option right now in North America for informal milk donation match-up is an organization called MilkShare. With MilkShare, you can meet your recipient and get to know your recipient family. The only fee involved is a one-time $15 fee for the recipient to join MilkShare. That is all, and $15 is a bargain compared to all the other options available to recipients out there. Donors join for free.
Another match-up organization which will hopefully be up and running soon is Milk Match. It is a forum that will be devoted exclusively to matching up donor and recipient moms informally, though it hasn’t started quite yet. It is not known at this time whether Milk Match will charge a fee for its services.
It is important when engaging in informal breast milk donation to get to know the family you are dealing with, both on the recipient and donor sides. For the recipient, it’s important to screen your breast milk donor by getting blood tests done, which should be at the recipient’s expense, and asking any relevant questions about lifestyle, the same way a milk bank would. The recipient could also learn to pasteurize the breast milk at home very easily and cheaply, if there is a concern about potential pathogens in the milk even after screening with a blood test. If applicable, the recipient should pay for shipping expenses; the donor should never have to incur any expense for donation. No money should be exchanged for the milk itself, as that may tarnish the altruism of the act.
For the donor, it’s important to make sure that the breastmilk you are so generously donating is going to a baby and not to an organization that will re-sell your milk (that’s why it’s important to get to know the family you’re donating to, in addition to the satisfaction of getting to know the baby you are helping to nourish with your milk!) It is an extremely rewarding act, the act of milk donation, when both recipient and donor know each other directly, without a middle-man.
However, there are many legitimate reasons to donate to HMBANA milk banks, a collection of eleven milk banks in North America, as well. HMBANA milk banks take breast milk donations from screened donors, pasteurize the donated milk, and provide it to needy babies in NICUs all across North America for a fee of $3.50/ounce. Often, raw donated breast milk can’t be given to delicate preemies because everything they come in contact with must be free from pathogens, and it is possible that unpasteurized donor milk could contain pathogens that for a normal infant wouldn’t cause a problem but in a preemie could be devastating. This is why HMBANA milk banks provide such a valuable service to the babies that need it the most, including abandoned babies who don’t have parents to advocate for them through MilkShare. What is especially compelling about HMBANA milk banks and what convinces me that they are truly there for the benefit of sick babies is that if the family cannot afford to pay $3.50/ounce for the milk, which is reportedly less than what it costs the HMBANA banks to process it, HMBANA banks will waive this fee for a critically ill baby. Truly, HMBANA milk banks are a godsend to babies in the NICU, regardless of whether or not they have a family to care for them, and regardless of whether their family can afford to pay for the pasteurized breastmilk.
There is a third option for breastmilk donation that everyone should be aware of but that I do not recommend. There are several milk depots across the United States that call themselves milk banks, but these “milk banks” are NOT affiliated with HMBANA milk banks at all. These “milk banks” don’t actually distribute milk to needy babies. These so-called “milk banks” are collection stations, sometimes freestanding, sometimes found inside hospitals or birthing centers, taking in milk to sell it directly to a company called Prolacta Bioscience (the price Prolacta pays for the raw milk ranges from $.50-$2/ounce). To all outward appearances, these milk depots look and sound like a real milk bank, but they do not distribute any milk to any babies, which is part of what real milk banks do.
Prolacta Bioscience, the company which processes the donated breast milk collected at these milk depots, is the only for-profit human milk processing company in the world. It processes donated breast milk and turns it into human milk fortifier, which is meant to be added to human milk, for preemies. What Prolacta doesn’t mention on any of its publications is that this human milk fortifier carries a price tag of $6.25/milliliter, which, when converted to ounces, is $184.83/ounce. This is alarming enough, but since Prolacta is a for-profit company and not in any way associated with HMBANA, if a family with a critically ill baby can’t pay or doesn’t have health insurance or Medicaid, they don’t get the human milk fortifier, even if their baby needs it. Additionally, there are no peer-reviewed studies so far that have even proven Prolacta’s human milk fortifier to be necessary. HMBANA milk banks already have the technology in place to provide preemies with higher-calorie milk, and preemies have already been known to thrive off of the HMBANA-provided milk, so the necessity of Prolacta’s human milk fortifier is questionable. Furthermore, if people donate to a Prolacta “milk bank” and give their breastmilk to Prolacta Bioscience instead of a HMBANA milk bank (both organizations have very similar screening criteria and thus receive donations from the same pool of donors), this depletes the supply going into HMBANA banks which means fewer preemies get the milk they so desperately need at a price that could be afforded.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing disturbing about the for-profit business model thus far. In addition to not easily disclosing the price of their human milk fortifier, and not explicitly informing its donors that their milk will be sold for a profit, Prolacta also reportedly has their donors sign a contract which essentially strips the donors of all the rights to their own breastmilk. Any royalties made off the sale of their breast milk, and any findings made from studying the components in their breast milk, the donors have no right to have. If Prolacta chooses to share their findings with their donors, it will be at Prolacta’s discretion, but the donors give up the right to any royalties or knowledge gleaned from the study of their breast milk the instant they sign a contract with Prolacta. Prolacta can patent components found in any of the human breast milk they receive, which means that Prolacta could potentially use these patented components, manufacture them, and sell them to formula companies so that formula can become even “closer to mother’s own milk.” This not only affects donors and recipients of Prolacta’s products today; it has the potential to affect breastfeeding for the future. If the public becomes convinced that formula is so close to mother’s milk that breastfeeding is unnecessary, then more people will choose to formula-feed instead of breastfeed, and the breastfeeding mothers that do remain will be seen as a societal “nuisance” because they insist on feeding their children in a way that’s “inconvenient” or “obsolete” or incompatible with the way society runs. As it is, with the advent of DHA and ARA being added to formulas to make them more like breast milk, already many people, including doctors, have the perception that formula is “just as good” or “almost as good” as breast milk, which is simply not true. Formula is still far inferior to breastmilk, for many, many reasons beyond talk of mere “components,” but even with the addition of 50 more components (not likely within this lifetime), formula would still be far inferior to breastmilk, given that there are at many hundreds of components in breast milk, many of which do not tolerate heat-treatment or sterilization, which all formula undergoes during manufacturing.
(Martek Bioscience owns the patent on DHA and ARA, for anyone that’s interested. DHA and ARA really are found in breast milk, and those components have been isolated in a lab and now are manufactured to be sold as supplements for adults and children or as additions to formula, so this concept of patenting manufactured breastmilk components isn’t some hokey-conspiracy science fiction fantasy. It’s happening now.)
I’m not saying improving formula for infants is a bad thing. Far from it. I have to supplement with formula for my own baby, so I want what I feed her to be as good as possible. The problem I have with this scheme is the way the donor milk is being obtained from generous donor moms and the implication that the addition of “breastmilk components” in formula has on the future of breastfeeding and mothers’ right to breastfeed. Is it possible that in the far future (100 years from now), women who choose to breastfeed be taxed by the government because the formula lobby insisted on it? If formula becomes perceived by the majority of the population as “just as good” as mothers’ milk, even if it isn’t, because of formula marketing (their marketing tactics are clearly working today, since even some doctors are convinced formula is “almost as good” as breastmilk), and if most voters are formula-feeders 100 years from now, it’s definitely possible. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my granddaughters and great-granddaughters to be taxed for breastfeeding.
All speculation aside, what I’m saying is, inform yourself. Ask lots of questions before donating to anyone. If you are interested in breast milk donation, especially in donating to a milk “bank” that is partnered with Prolacta, read the contract very carefully before signing, especially the parts about the rights you will be signing over to Prolacta. Prolacta often offers a free breast pump to its donors, and this offer can seem very attractive, but it’s not worth signing away all the rights to your own milk for a breast pump. If after asking all your questions, you have more questions than answers, you may want to consider donating elsewhere.
The following milk depots partner with Prolacta, which means that ALL the milk donations donated to the following milk “banks” are sold to Prolacta Bioscience for $.50-$2/ounce (usually $1/ounce). Prolacta then processes the raw donated breast milk and re-sells it for $184.83/ounce. Also, the following milk depots require donors to sign a contract which reportedly strips the donors of their rights to their own milk. None of the following milk “banks” distribute milk to needy babies:
- The National Milk Bank
- The University of Minnesota Medical Center
- The Family Birth Center
- The Mother’s Touch, The Birth Connection Milk Bank
- The Whole Woman, Inc.
- South Coast Milk Bank
- Milkin’ Mamas
- Miami Maternity Center
The above list is not comprehensive and does not include all of the milk banks that partner with Prolacta. You need to ask the milk bank you donate your milk to whether or not Prolacta processes its milk in order to be sure.
The following organization partners with Prolacta and sells at least 75% of its milk donations to Prolacta Bioscience for $1/ounce:
It has still not been confirmed by the IBMP’s founder, Jill Youse, what has happened to all the money made from selling the milk to Prolacta thus far. 100% of that money, for three months (May 31, 2007-August 31, 2007), was promised toward the building of a health facility at the Lewa Children’s Home at Eldoret, Kenya. During those three months, the International Breast Milk Project reportedly earned at least $50,000 in sales of donated breastmilk to Prolacta (~$25,000 for June and ~$25,000 for July. It is not known how much was earned for August 2007). This amount of money still has NOT been sent to the Lewa Children’s Home, according to the IBMP. As of the date of this posting, many questions still remain unanswered about how much breastmilk and money are really going to Africa.
ETA: The IBMP has updated their site a few times since the original posting of this entry. Happily, according to the newly updated FAQ section of the IBMP site (which is ever-changing), the money in question was donated to Africa. Hopefully the IBMP will continue its charitable efforts in Africa because, after all, that is the reason why the organization exists.