Can't Breastfeed? Have you thought about human milk for your baby?

I’ll just break the ice right off the bat:

I gave my daughter donated milk for a couple of months when I was unable to nurse my child.

People tell me that’s gross, as they feed their babies milk from a mother of a different species. When you put away societal norms and personal hang-ups, which is actually more gross?


File:Cow milking machine in action DSC04132.jpg
Photo by: David Monniaux


Other Mama’s Milk Through History

Louis XIV and his wet nurse

The use of a wet nurse, a woman who breastfeeds another’s child, was very common before the introduction of baby formula. The Journal of Perinatal Education published an article entitled “A History of Infant Feeding” in 2009. The authors explain:

” Wet nursing began as early as 2000 BC and extended until the 20th century. Throughout this time period, wet nursing evolved from an alternative of need (2000 BC) to an alternative of choice (950 BC to 1800 AD). It became a well organized profession with contracts and laws designed to regulate its practice. Despite objections during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, wet nursing continued until the feeding bottle was introduced in the 19th century.”

Though not often talked about, I am familiar with a few sets of women in my own county who have acted as a wet-nurse in situations that called for it. Two sets of milk swappers are sisters. The third, came out of necessity. Two women I know used to babysitting each other’s infants. They were both nursing. One day one of the women was running very later. The woman who was babysitting had run out of the other woman’s pumped breast milk, and the baby was hungry.  After a hesitant phone call, the solution was clear. There were several times after that day, that those women just took the easier route and nursed each other’s babies.

It happens more than anyone every discusses.

According to UNICEF, “The best food for a baby who cannot be breastfed is milk expressed from the mother’s breast or from another healthy mother. The best food for any baby whose own mother’s milk is not available is the breast milk of another healthy mother.”




Milk Banks

Milk banks are companies that accept breast milk from screened donors. Because there is some small risks of passing infections and viruses to babies through breast milk, donors must undergo a medical screening and a blood test to rule out infectious diseases such as HIV-1 and-2, hepatitis B and C and syphilis. In general though, at most milk banks, the milk is pasteurized in such a way that germs are killed, but most of the critical nutrients in the donated breast milk remain.

The Human Milk Banking of North America explains the process that is used  on their website. Generally, milk banks are not a very affordable option for women looking for human milk to feed their little ones.  In certain circumstances, insurance companies will pay for this milk. It’s still not common, but it is becoming increasingly more common in NICU situations because the science is sound: Breast milk is nutritionally superior and the benefits can be life-saving to at-risk babies.




My daughter, me, and donor milk.

Milk Sharing

This is how I got my daughter’s milk. I already knew the women though, so I didn’t have to search for a donor. The women were already screened by a “Milk Bank” by the time they offered their milk to me and found to not have HIV-1 and-2, hepatitis B and C and syphilis. Given the nature of breast milk, I would not have been overly concerned anyway, but it certainly set my relative’s minds at ease. I did not “pasteurize” the milk in any way. I just warmed it as I would my own frozen breast milk. It is highly suggested that women do pasteurize their donated milk, but given the close relationships I had with these women, I chose not to. I wanted the added benefits of not pasteurizing because at that time, both my daughter and I had just been on antibiotics.

There are hundreds of online communities that offer milk sharing. This milk is generally donated and usually, the milk is free. Women generally screen their potential donors. MilkShare has information about screening donors and writing up agreements. Precautions they suggest include:

  • Having every milk donor screened. Blood work should be as current as possible.
  • Obtaining a completed donor agreement  that documents past health history.
  • Pasteurizing milk using a home pasteurizer.
  • Discussing proper hygiene with milk donors.
  • Discussing lifestyle with milk donors; get to know each donor through multiple contacts.
  • Receiving a letter from the donor mother’s doctor stating that milk donation poses no risk to her child and that she appears to be in good health.
  • Rejecting milk from donors that do not meet 100% of milk bank criteria, including mothers that are on medications passed through breast milk (discuss with your care provider, as milk banks may be more stringent than is necessary), mothers unwilling to be blood tested, mothers that can not provide complete health history, or mothers that have an unhealthy lifestyle in any way.



I know this is a touchy subject, but I wanted to make sure that women knew this was an option. Likewise, I think it’s important for women to know that there are plenty of “normal” women out there who feel, as UNICEF does, that another mother’s milk is the next best thing when breastfeeding does not work out.

Are you a donor? Have you relied on the generosity of a donor? Have you ever had to rely on milk from a milk bank?



  1. Isn’t that so sad that we have such a stigma about milk sharing? That’s how humans have SURVIVED and EVOLVED. When I was home last summer w/ my son who was still a baby then, an old family friend told me a story about his mother who fed five babies at one time, and only two were hers. It wasn’t weird, it was necessary. No one could afford formula, all the mamas were sick and she had milk. We know breastmilk is best for babies, but we shame women who share breastmilk, and for what reason? Because somehow it’s “gross” to feed another baby from your breast? Why? Because breasts are sexual? Ugh. Way to go for writing about milk sharing. I hope it helps fight the stigma.

  2. Tara

    Quick question…I am all for milk sharing. However, I don’t necessarily agree with the need to pasteurize or that it is even the best route. Pasteurizing the milk would kill so much of the good stuff in breastmilk. Ultimately I feel that by pasteurizing the milk you could even be causing detrimental effects to the child. It reminded me of this study I read a while ago on…….

    Any thoughts? I just would imagine that the same thing would hold true for humans. Thriving with raw human milk and not thriving and other internal issues with pasteurized milk.

    • Dawn

      I also do not believe in pasteurizing and I also believe that human milk is safe. I believe that the reason that human milk is pasteurized is because a baby who was fed part formula and part human milk would not have the same benefits that a child nursing exclusively from their mother would. When formula is introduced the lining of the gut changes and it opens up the possibility that infections could be transmitted such as HIV. A mother breastfeeding exclusively or a baby eating exclusively breastmilk from a donor would not have that same concern because their gut would have the protective nature about it. I believe that is why most milk banks do that. Since they can not garuntee that mothers will not engage in activities after their initial screening. kwim? With milk sharing it is rarely done because the mothers have a relationship and trust built I believe. But I do believe that the nonexclusive nature of needing donor milk is what makes them feel the need to pasteurize it. I agree though that pasteurization would end up resulting in more of other bacteria proliferating. I also think that’s more of a worry than HIV given the nature of donor mothers and their likely behavior. A cow, would not have the potential to pass along those viruses to humans. Though, in truth, there’s plenty of other things they could pass along, and drinking raw cows milk seems to defend against that over pasteurized.

  3. Pingback: My Excuse for Not Breastfeeding — Everything Birth's Blog on Midwifery, Attachment Parenting, Cloth Diapers and More

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