Updated on November 19, 2015
Breastmilk Donation: My Experience
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Did you know that breastmilk can be donated? Yeah, it’s true! There are these awesome places called milk banks where you can donate breastmilk that you’ve pumped and it is pasteurized and shipped off to NICUs (Neonatal Intensive Care Units) across the country. Pretty cool, right? How exactly does a breastfeeding mom find out about breastmilk donation, and how do you sign up to be a donor? I’m going to share my experience as a breastmilk donor and explain how I learned about the program, how I do it, and why I do it. Maybe this is all new to you or maybe you’ve already considered donating your breastmilk. I’ve learned a lot through this whole process and I want to share my wisdom with you!
I’ll start by telling you about the milk bank where I donate my breastmilk. In Canada there are four milk banks (yes, only four). There’s one in Vancouver, one in Toronto, one in Montreal, and one here in Calgary. The Calgary Mothers’ Milk Bank is where I donate my breastmilk. I wasn’t aware that breastmilk donation was possible when The Heir was born. I was fortunate enough to have a very good supply of milk with him, and had I known that I could have been donating the excess I would have. When I was pregnant with Petit Prince, I looked into breastmilk donation after reading about it online. I read about the screening process and discussed the possibility of donation with my midwives. They were totally onboard and were willing to sign off on my paperwork once the baby had arrived and we were all settled in. Once Petit Prince was here, I contacted the Calgary Mothers’ Milk Bank to ask about how I could become a breastmilk donor. The first step was a telephone interview. That interview was a series of questions about my health and my lifestyle. It was much the same as the questionnaire they go through when you donate blood. Once I passed the interview, I was sent a package with another questionnaire, some forms for mine and Petit Prince’s health care providers to sign, and a requisition form for some blood work. Then I just mailed in the completed paperwork, got the blood work done, and waited to get the call! I was thrilled when I found out I had been approved as a breastmilk donor. I had been pumping from around the time Petit Prince was four weeks old, and I was getting close to the minimum donation size for my first donation.
How much milk do you need to donate? For your very first donation, you need to have 4.5 L (150 oz) of pumped and frozen breastmilk. You can opt to make a single donation of at least 4.5 L, or you can opt to be a recurrent donor and donate throughout your baby’s first year. You can only donate milk that was pumped before baby’s first birthday. I wanted to continue to donate throughout Petit Prince’s first year as long as I was able to pump enough, so I opted to be a recurrent donor. After the initial donation, subsequent donations can be smaller, but should be at least 1.5 L (50 oz). If you’re storing your breastmilk in a regular freezer (the kind attached to a refrigerator), you can store it for up to three months before taking in the donation. If you’re storing your breastmilk in a deep freezer, then you can store it for up to six months before taking in the donation.
Where does your breastmilk go once it’s donated? First your breastmilk is thawed and measured. I always get an email shortly after doing a drop off that tells me how much milk was in that donation and how much milk I’ve donated to date. Then your milk is tested for bacteria, homogenized with the milk of two other donors, bottled, pasteurized, and tested for bacteria again. Then it is frozen and stored until it is shipped off to a Canadian NICU. After the pasteurization process, the milk is good for one year from the original pumped date.
Who are the recipients of the donated breastmilk? The babies that get your breastmilk are critically ill and premature babies that are staying in the NICU. In some cases, the mothers of those babies aren’t able to breastfeed or pump milk for their babies, so pasteurized donated human milk is provided. The donation process is confidential, so although the milk bank is able to track the milk donations forwards and backwards, the identities of the donors and recipients are kept confidential.
Now that you know what it’s all about, I’ll tell you about my experience as a breastmilk donor. The first thing is that I do have my own pump. That is pretty important if you want to be breastmilk donor. I use a double electric pump (Medela Pump In Style), and I pump once a day. Initially, I pumped in the morning after Petit Prince’s first feed of the day. Once The Heir started preschool, our mornings were too rushed for me to have the time I needed to pump after that first feeding. At that point I started pumping in the evening after Petit Prince went to bed and before his first night waking. I’ve basically convinced my body that I need enough milk for a full feeding at that time of the evening, so I can pump a fair amount in one 15 minute pumping session. I pump every evening and rarely skip a night. At the beginning I was pumping into Medela Pump & Save breastmilk storage bags, but after my initial donation I brought home some of the pre-sterilized milk storage containers that the milk bank provides free to its donors. Now I pump into Medela bottles and pour the milk into those sterilized containers.
To date, I’ve made four donations to the Calgary Mothers’ Milk Bank. My total volume of donated breastmilk is 19.65 L (665 oz). I try to get to the milk bank every three to four weeks to do a drop off. If I go any longer than that, my freezer gets too full!
Why do I donate breastmilk? That’s a good question. I guess the main reason that I do it is because I can. I’m fortunate to have an abundant milk supply and it seems silly to let it go to waste. I always joke that I could feed the neighbourhood, but now I’m feeding a NICU! In some ways I do it for myself too. It’s nice to be able to give back and giving breastmilk to the most vulnerable babies feels pretty amazing. After I started donating, I found out that my husband’s great grandmother was as close to a breastmilk donor as you could get back in 1927. She spent extra days in the hospital after the birth of one of her sons so she could nurse another mom’s baby that wasn’t thriving. I like that I’m able to carry on with that “tradition” of sharing breastmilk with babies that need it.
So far my experience with breastmilk donation has been a really positive one. I love stopping by at the milk bank with my donations and getting a chance to see the homogenization and pasteurization process in action. If you’re interested in donating breastmilk, I would encourage you to go for it. If you’re in Canada but not living in one of the cities with a milk bank, you can still donate breastmilk. The Calgary Mothers’ Milk Bank accepts donations from all across the country! I have a friend all the way in Nova Scotia who has donated to Calgary’s milk bank! Does it require some dedication? Yes. Is it totally worth it? Absolutely. Knowing that the milk I’ve donated has taken the pressure off of even one mom of a preemie in the NICU, or has given her one less thing to worry about when she’s focussing on the health of her baby is an amazing feeling. To be just one small part of another mom’s journey through motherhood is really special.
Have you donated breastmilk or considered donating? Was your baby a recipient of donated breastmilk in a NICU? I’d love to hear about your experience!