The Gift of Human Milk

by Kelli Kelley, mother of two preemies

human breast milk ready for donation

Photo credit: Kelley Family

Following the early birth of my son Jackson, born at 24 weeks gestation, one of the few things I could do to support his fragile start in life was to provide my breast milk. As preterm infants typically are unable to breast feed due to respiratory complications and lack of ororhythmic motor control, most moms must pump and store their milk which will later be provided to their child by tube feedings.

Pumping takes a lot of dedication – much like breastfeeding a newborn baby. I well remember a friend once trying to console me about Jackson’s long NICU stay by saying, “Well at least you will be rested when he comes home.” What she did not know or understand was that I was still getting up several times a night – only I was awakened by the sounds of my alarm signaling me that it was time to pump – rather than the sweet cries of a newborn baby. I sat in silence except for the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of the pump with no baby to hold or cheeks to softly kiss. It was not easy, but I am proud of the hours I spent attached to the crazy contraption we call a breast pump because I know human breast milk is like liquid gold for preterm infants. And, I think it was a cathartic experience as I slowly came to terms with the early birth of my child.

The gift of breast milk not only helped my vulnerable baby but also helped me heal from the trauma of his early birth. I’ve come to learn the power of that healing extends to mothers who even donate their milk in times of grief. I was humbled and touched to learn that many bereaved moms choose to donate their milk following the loss of their infant. It is a very personal decision and not right for everyone, but some moms find solace in honoring their child’s memory through the support of other babies in need. “Giving my milk to help babies born too soon was healing for me,” said Michelle, a bereaved mother. “It didn’t bring back my precious baby, and it didn’t erase my pain, but it helped me to have a purpose.”

Breast milk carries significant benefits for preterm infant’s immune, gastrointestinal and brain development. Studies indicate that infants fed human milk instead of formula have a lower risk of several specific complications of prematurity including: enteral feed intolerance, infection, necrotizing enterocolitis, chronic lung disease and retinopathy of prematurity. While in the NICU, most babies receive fortified breast milk to ensure adequate amounts of protein, fats and carbohydrates are provided to support brain development and organ maturity. Given one of the common reasons for hospital re-admission in the first year of life is Failure to Thrive, many doctors now recommend that preterm infants continue to receive fortified breast milk through the first six months of life.1

Because of the major medical benefits associated with human breast milk, and a need to standardize the safe operation of non-profit milk banks, the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) was founded in 1985.  HMBANA member milk banks process donated human milk primarily for fragile and vulnerable infants to ensure they have an adequate and safe supply of this life-giving and life-sustaining supplement when mother’s own milk is not available.  Milk is dispensed based on medical need rather than insurance or financial resources of families. Fragile babies can receive donor milk at no charge through many of the milk banks when there is a medical need and a prescription is provided from a health care provider.

Milk Banks across America project that they need to dispense 8 million ounces per year to meet the need of the smallest preterm and medically fragile babies.  Donating breast milk can truly save lives and the donation process has truly never been easier.  Milk Banks require a brief  phone screening followed by a written screening looking at medical and lifestyle factors, and a blood test (at the expense of the Milk Bank).  This screening process ensure that the milk is safe to be handled and eventually dispensed. Many Milk Banks will work with donors to make the drop-off process as easy as possible – sometimes providing a drive up milk drop off (Mother’s Milk Bank of Austin) and pick up services at the NICU or donor residence.

I was lucky to be able to provide an abundant milk supply as many moms experience complications producing.  For that reason, I chose to donate my extra breast milk to a milk bank to help meet the needs of other preterm and sick babies. “Mother’s milk is a powerful prescription. Especially for infants who are preterm or sick,” said Kim Updegrove, Executive Director of Mother’s Milk Bank of Austin and president-elect of HMBANA.  “It’s our job to collect, process, and dispense the donor milk that helps these medically fragile babies survive and thrive.

Thus far, the Mother’s Milk Bank of Austin has dispensed more than 215,000 ounces of milk in 2011and are well on their way to their goal of 325,000 ounces. But, they need and welcome new donors.  Typically donors are asked to make a minimum donation of 100 ounces over any period of time. Visit to find out more about giving one of nature’s most precious gifts. “The health of the next generation matters to all of us,” said Updegrove.  “We need to do everything possible to optimize life for all babies–those born at 23 weeks and those that are born full term.”

Note:  The Mother’s Milk Bank of Austin recommends that donors maintain a two week supply of frozen milk for their baby in their own freezer.  If you have an abundant supply of frozen milk, check with your nearest Milk Bank to see if it meets necessary requirements for donation.

It is recommended that donors only support Milk Banks that are members of HMBANA to ensure proper regulation of milk to babies in need.

Read HMBANA’s Position Papers on donor milk banking and the ethics of donation.

See also: Human Milk Saves Babies, Reduces Complications


1 See the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Policy Statement on Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk in PEDIATRICS Vol. 115 No. 2 February 2005, pp. 496-506. See also Schanler RJ. The use of human milk for premature infants. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2001;48 :207 –219 [Medline]

2 See also the Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk policy statement in addition to Human Milk Banking Association of North America. Guidelines for Establishment and Operation of a Donor Human Milk Bank. Raleigh, NC: Human Milk Banking Association of North America Inc; 2003.

Kelli Kelley is the founder and executive director of Hand to Hold. She is the mother of two preemies, Jackson and Lauren.


  1. I’m glad someone mentioned this about pumping. Some of my friends have tried to tell me how “lucky” I am and how good it is that I get to have lots of rest after having my son, but they don’t understand. I’m pumping all of the time (7-10 times a day), and I’ve struggled with low supply from the start. So, I can even pump for 30 minutes or do the power pumping thing and only get 20 mLs of milk for my son. It’s very stressful, and there’s lots of alarms to wake up to and of course the swooshing sounding machine and cold pump flanges’ plasitic to put on. Then, you have to wash all of the pieces, label the milk, and play a game of Janga with all of the other barely filled bottles in the freezer. And if that wasn’t enough stress and sleep deprivation, then I’m making trips to the hospital all of the time w/ all of the sensory overload that is the NICU and watching everything they have to do to my little baby boy and his health going up and down. So, no! I’m not lucky! And it’s not good! I’m not getting lots of rest either! I’m not just leaving my baby at a daycare for the day. He has been in intensive care for over 7 weeks now b/c he was born premature with his intestines hanging out of a hole in his tummy! But how in the world to you explain that to someone? I am very thankful for milk donors! They have provided milk for my baby when I was unable to (still working w/ lactation nurses on this)!
    Anyway, sorry for this long rant, but I’ve been really frustrated about people’s misunderstandings about this situation and my lack of a proper way to communicate the reality of it.

  2. Pumping for my son who just turned 1 this week has been a labor of love. While he was in the NICU for the first 2 months of his life, my pump became my connection to him when I couldnt be there. Dispite trying to breastfeed him in the NICU, I never really got the hang of it and when he finally came home, there was no one to help look after our 3 year old while I tried to relearned direct breast feeding. Needless to say, I managed to pump and give our son breast milk for a whole year. When I had to return the pump to the hospital this week, it was like saying bye to an old friend.

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