Donor milk – would you use it?

Someone posted the sister advertisement to this one in one of the breastfeeding Facebook groups I’m a member of. The advert she posted asked: “What’s the best milk after Emma’s?” It featured an even younger baby than the one here. The baby in that photo was sitting up with her mother positioned to support her, should she wobble.

The World Health Organisation would answer the question in both adverts with: “donor milk”. So I’m tempted to Photoshop this ad to replace the SMA info at the bottom with: “Milk from another mother”.

This ad campaign annoys me on so many levels, from the obvious inaccuracy I’ve already mentioned to the numerous ways it flouts the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. However, I’m not going to get into those right now.

(You can read more about it on the Baby Feeding Law Group if you like.)

What it made me think about again was whether I would use donor milk. The hierarchy of milks goes like this: mother’s milk, her expressed milk, another mother’s milk and, failing all of that, formula.

I knew that when I gave Talitha formula.

She was combination fed for two and a half months then given formula supplements on and off for another one and a half until I realised that she really didn’t need them anymore.

The first time I looked at the back of a tin of formula, I was both intrigued and upset by its ingredients. It’s obvious to anyone who looks at the list that it’s highly processed stuff. That goes for “organic” formula too.

Still, babies have to eat and when there is no other milk, formula will do. Except, is there no other milk?

I was surprised by how many women offered me their pumped milk. Their kindness was touching. These were offers of compassion. They came straight from a mother’s heart. I couldn’t accept it though.

It wasn’t that donor milk weirded me out. In fact, feeding my baby another woman’s milk seemed a lot more natural to me than mixing powdered milk from another species, chemistry set-ed together in a laboratory.

The problem was that pasteurisation on its own couldn’t set me at ease. Short of screening, I couldn’t be absolutely certain of the state of another person’s health.

Under the stress of the situation we were in, I needed to take the option most easily available to us. So I reached for a tin. But it was NOT the best milk after my own.

I often wished that it were possible for me to access donor milk from a bank but those resources are so stretched they can only cater for special cases, usually premature newborns, and rightly so. Babies in those conditions desperately need it. Breast milk is their lifeline. Meeting their needs is certainly where we need to start.

That left me with the friends who’d offered and unofficial milksharing organisations such as Human Milk 4 Human Babies, a route I obviously would not go down.

That said, if I didn’t have low supply issues and wasn’t taking domperidone, and you needed my milk, I’d give it to you. Would you use it?

By the way, particularly if you live in the South-West, think about supporting Southmead Hospital’s Milk Bank, Precious Drops. It’s been in the news recently for helping 20 premature and sick babies across the region.

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  • I donated my milk to a milk bank – part of it was a pact I made that if Littler survived and didn’t need special care I’d do what I could to help parents that weren’t as lucky as us.  I didn’t do it for more than 9 months but hopefully it helped (by then I was rapidly falling out with pumping enough for Littler)
    I had a couple of litres left over after I’d finished donating which stayed in my freezer and I passed onto another family where the Mum had sadly got cancer and wanted to keep her daughter on donated milk for as long as possible that we informally set up amongst a group of local mothersHaving thought about it long and hard, actually I’d have loved to have someone wet nurse my children when I was at work but I can understand why it would be hard for people and yes, there are the health issues but hopefully that is something that can be resolved – before I pumped for the bank I had blood tests plus my log sheets had to show when I’d have any drugs and I couldn’t donate if I’d had more than x coffee and no alcohol for a certain number of days

    • It’s interesting that you were able to do that. Down here they won’t accept milk if your baby is over six months old. Someone made the good point to me recently that if someone is in a milk bank program you should feel fine about accepting their milk. I think if this had been the case with anyone who’d offered, it would’ve been different.

      I think it’s so interesting that you’d be up for having a wet nurse. In principle I would be, again if I was certain of their health, but in practice I don’t honestly think I would go for it. It’s the bonding aspect of it that bothers me.

      • Question on the milk bank, ours doesn’t accept a first donation once baby is 6 months but you can donate as long as you like if you start before that point.  They find a lot of women find it hard finding the motivation to pump once their own baby starts solids so it’s not worth them going through the screening process if you are going to give up after a month.

  • ooh interesting post! would i accept your milk…yes, as you’ve rightly pointed out, its better than formula. however two questions: would you be willing to have some blood tests or would you be offended by the question? and what about payment…it takes time and effort to express!

  • It kills me to admit this to myself, but no, I wouldn’t use it. For precisely the reasons you have listed. I know donor milk is better than formula, but I couldn’t accept it from a stranger. I would be untrusting of it. When I think about it logically, I know it makes far less sense to be trusting of a large corporation. But I guess my feeling on this is a gut response rather than a logical one.

    If it were donor milk from a screened milk bank, then yes, I’d probably be a lot more comfortable with that.

  • I think it would very much depend on the situation. If I can’t breastfeed and I know that my child would need breast milk because it is premature, then I would of course accept it – just as I would accept everything else that would make make my baby stronger and more likely to survive. I do think that if I had been unable to breastfeed my completely healthy and strong baby though, I would have gone down the formula route. Breast milk seems like something incredibly intimate to me and I think that I would be a bit jealous, if I can’t provide this for my baby while someone else can – does this make sense? Selfish, I know, but this is how I feel about it…

    • It’s interesting that you say that. I see the act of breastfeeding as intimate but the milk itself as a substance and comparing the two substances the one that’s live wins every time. But thinking about it, I probably would feel some jealousy too. I don’t know if it would be enough to stop me accepting a donation but it would definitely be part of my grieving process.

  • I would use it if my baby would benefit, if they were older and weaning I’d use formula, but if they were very small then I would. I would also have donated (if I hadn’t stopped feeding before we got a local milk bank). 

  • Interesting question. When I formula fed my eldest a friend offered to feed him for me, not through donation but direct from her breast. I didn’t accept and was pretty weirded out by the idea of him having such intimate contact with someone other than me. In fact for a long time I insisted on doing all the bottle feeds for the same reason. Anyway I think I would accept milk from a bank where all was screened and healthy but probably not otherwise for the same reasons as you. Luckily Ive been able to exclusively breastfeed my other two.

    • I wonder if maybe it’s a big deal when it’s being offered because you can’t do it yourself? For me, jealousy would likely come into play because of that. I did the bottle feeds myself when I was bottle feeding for the same reason as you.

  • Good thinking. When I made the film for Best Beginning breastfeeding charity we filmed at the milk banks in the hospital and it is such an incredible gift to give. Well done you for highlighting. 

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  • I’d definitely use it.

    When my son was tiny, I donated milk to my local milk bank regularly, and I had to have blood tests in order to do so.  I had to stop when I was medicated for PND, which I was sad about, but I feel like I did my bit.

    I have also let a friend wet nurse him when she was babysitting for me.  It was no big deal at all.  I’d totally nurse a baby who wasn’t mine. 

    • The issue of wet nursing is so so interesting to me, especially since you say it’s no big deal to you. I’d definitely nurse someone else’s baby but I’m not sure about someone else nursing mine. But then, I’ve never been in that situation so I can’t really say. I suppose it saved you from having to pump, which let’s face it, isn’t fun anyway.

  • I think I over-analyse things too much. I totally understand the benefits of breast milk – I BF’d my son for 1 yr, 1 month and 2 days (not that I counted) but when it comes to donor milk (for my children), I just don’t know. I know they do a screening process, but that is only as good as the day on which it is conducted. What about the day after? What if the donor mother contracted something? Oh dear, I think I need to go hit Google as this will now play on my mind ALL night! 

    • Wow, yes I think you’ve thought about that even more than I have! If a donor had been through the screening process, that’d be enough for me, actually. Hope had a good time Googling it all!

  • Yes I would use donor milk, I would have happily moved my children onto it when I stopped breastfeeding them myself. It’s used increasingly in SCBU units now which is encouraging. And it’s not a new idea either, as wet nurses were a tradition in the upper classes for many years. It would be nice to see donor milk become used more widely.

    • I fully agree, I’d love to see donor milk used more likely. I’d also like to see a system in place so that milksharing can be done safely and not limited to benefiting babies in the SCBU – though that’s certainly where it’s most necessary. I find the idea of wet nursing a very interesting one. My feelings on it have changed a few times in the past 9.5 months. 

    • Someone else was telling me they’d donated through HM4HB the other day. I think the availability of resources like HM4HB is important. Women need to satisfy themselves about how safe they feel using them though. Of course, they should also weigh it up with the risks of using formula too.

  • I donated milk for 8 months but to a milk bank so that mostly went to babies in the SCBU & NeoNatal units in my local hospital but that milk bank has also given milk to babies whose Mums are undergoing chemo.  I don’t think I would accept milk unscreened and unpasteurised from a stranger but if there was no alternative, I would have no problem accepting milk from a friend or family member.  That said, since becoming a bit of a breastfeeding geek, I would probably be desperate to get breastmilk and formula would be a last resort.
    I can see how it might feel weird to even accept pasteurised donor milk but in the case of the sick and premature babies, it really is a lifesaver.

  • I would undoubtedly use your milk.

    My son was premature (27 weeks) and I expressed for him for 10 weeks, then my supply dropped. Our hospital does not have a milk bank, and because he was almost term, I was not allowed to use donor milk from another bank.

    I was devastated giving him formula, it hurt like hell, giving him milk from another mother would have been far more preferable for me. 

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