Everything You Need to Know About Human Donor Milk in the NICU

August 18, 2023

Human donor milk can be a life-saver for NICU babies.

NICU baby, human donor milk, NICU

in partnership with Mothers’ Milk Bank Austin

Many NICU moms have had to rely on human donor milk for their babies in the NICU, for a variety of reasons. Those who donate milk give an incredible gift to those who, for one reason or another, may not be able to provide their own milk for their baby. We spoke to Cat Nunnery of Mothers’ Milk Bank Austin to learn more about donor milk, how it’s prescribed and why, and how moms can donate their own milk if they find themselves with a large supply they won’t use.

Why would a NICU baby need donor milk? 

As anxious as a NICU mom is to provide anything she can for her baby, she may face multiple barriers to breastfeeding and pumping. The stress of the NICU alone is enough to delay and even prevent milk from coming in, and not all women respond well to pumps. That’s where donor milk can come in to fill the gap.

“My supply never came in. It was the best thing they could have gotten. I am thankful for all the women who donated.”

Erin M., Austin, TX

How can donor milk help a NICU baby?

It turns out that breast milk, even from other women, is linked to cures for so many illnesses and issues commonly seen in the NICU. One of the most important use cases for donor milk is to prevent Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC), a terrible intestinal condition that causes 55% of infant deaths. For very low birthweight infants, human milk is the only known way to prevent NEC.

Where does human donor milk come from?

Donor milk comes from women with extra to share – either because they have an oversupply of milk while feeding their own baby, they stockpiled milk for a rainy day that never came, they carried a child as a surrogate mother and chose to lactate and pump just for donation, or they lost their child in pregnancy or after birth and donated milk as part of their grieving process.

“My son is alive because of donor milk. We are forever grateful for the milk bank and the mothers that pump tirelessly to donate.”

Jennifer C., Georgetown, TX

How are donors selected and screened?

All these women volunteer to donate milk, and each one completes an extensive screening process. They’re interviewed for health and lifestyle risk factors, get bloodwork done, and their healthcare providers sign off. They also commit to avoiding most medications and herbs while continuing to donate.

Is donor milk safe? How is it prepared?

Donor milk is very safe! After the screening process, donated milk is tested for bacteria and viruses. It’s then heat-treated through Holder Pasteurization and re-tested to prove that potentially harmful bacteria and viruses were removed while the nutritional and immunity benefits of the milk remain. Watch the whole preparation process here.

“My daughter received donor milk for about a week until my milk came in. I am grateful to the moms who donated! Because of them she was able to get needed nutrients that first week!”

Ashley B., Collierville, TN

Is it ok to fortify donor milk for my NICU baby?

Yes! Fortification of human milk for babies in the NICU is a common practice. Breast milk, whether from mom or donors, is intended to be perfect for a full term baby. When a baby is born early, or very small, or just has difficulty developing as needed for brain development, fortification is used to boost overall calories or simply the protein content.


How can I receive donor milk after NICU discharge? 

Call your local milk bank to explore your options. Even if your Neonatologist doesn’t know how to prescribe donor milk after discharge, the milk bank staff can walk you through the steps to getting it and can advocate on your behalf for insurance coverage of the processing fees.

How can I become a donor?

Reach out to your local milk bank! They’ll walk you through the screening process. Anyone with 100 ounces or more of frozen breast milk is encouraged to share the wealth through donation.

Download these free handouts about donor milk from Mothers’ Milk Bank of Austin:

Donor Human Milk for Your Baby

Donación de Leche Materna para su Bebé


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cat nunnery, mothers milk bank austin, donor milk, human donor milk

About Cat Nunnery

Cat Nunnery is a mother of two, one of whom is still breastfeeding, and has been a milk donor twice. She leads the Donor Experience team at Mothers’ Milk Bank Austin, the largest non-profit milk bank in the world with a mission to give breast milk to all babies who need it. Cat’s role lets her find creative ways to spread the word about milk donation and treat milk donors like the heroes they are for as long as they’re part of the milk bank community.