Recently, a handful of hospitals in NYC started offering something amazing to NICU babies: donor breast milk. It sounds weird to the unknown ear, I know. Donor breast milk? Why? How? I had these same questions when my daughter Ava was born and ended up in the NICU, surrounded by babies who had been born prematurely. I decided to research donating my breast milk, and soonafter, found myself getting deeper into the labyrinth that is human milk. Here’s 5 truths I found during the process.

1. Babies born prematurely benefit greatly from breast milk, and many of their mothers can’t provide it.

Babies born prematurely are extremely susceptible to a gastrointestinal disease called Necrotizing Entercolitis. This is a disease where the intestines aren’t fully developed and eventually end up deteriorating, causing holes to develop and waste and bacteria to enter the intestinal tract and ultimately causing life-threatening infections. It is the number one killer of preemie babies, but if they receive breast milk instead of formula during this crucial time, their chance of overcoming this disease is upward of 79%. Breast milk helps these babies thrive, gain weight faster and get the antibodies and nutrients they may otherwise not be getting from formula. It can also help these babies cut their NICU stays in half.

Many of the mothers of these babies don’t have their milk in yet, and the stress of having a baby in the NICU and having had birthed prematurely makes it difficult for them to produce milk, or enough of it. Donor milk can really help these babies get healthy faster and ultimately save lives and guard against disease. It’s almost baffling that hospitals wouldn’t offer something.

2. You hear about undersupply, but many new moms pump more than they can use.

While Ava was in the NICU (due to losing 10% of her birthweight and fever), I began pumping breast milk. My supply was enough for three babies, and I knew it! I stopped pumping a few days after she came home but started up again when I went back to work at four months postpartum. Having an oversupply of milk was hard to manage, but it was better than having an undersupply. I found myself pumping three times a day and bringing home more than Ava ever drank.

3. Informal milk sharing is not regulated.

Some women donate informally, finding other people who may need breast milk for their baby locally and giving it to them, person to person. While I tried this once, I felt uncomfortable knowing it wasn’t properly regulated and I was never sure that a baby was using my milk.

4. Some milk banks use breast milk for research instead of sending it directly to babies in need.

When I learned about donating breast milk via a milk bank, I felt more comfortable. Still there were pitfalls: I found some milk banks that said they would reimburse me for the cost of my breast pump (over $200!), but after reading more about them, I realized that these were research companies, and that my milk might never even make it to an actual baby.

5. Donating safely is easier than you think.

I finally read about the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. They guaranteed that my milk would go to a hospital NICU and help babies who were micro-preemies that weighed under 4lbs.

Signing up was easy: I did a phone interview with my local HMBANA milk bank, sent my medical records and did blood tests every six months. Every few months I would package up my milk and send it off to FedEx for an overnight delivery to the Mothers Milk Bank Northeast in Massachusetts. From there, they would test the milk, pasteurize it and send it off to hospitals, like Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, where it would go directly to the NICU and be used for preemie babies in need.

In all, I ended up donating around 400oz. to the milk bank and another 100oz. after that informally, because my milk had gone past the milk banks deadline of three months since pumped.

I had an amazing experience donating milk and was so thankful I was able to do it. This was something I could easily do, didn’t take a lot of extra time or money and helped save lives and help babies get healthy.

If you’re interested in breast milk donation, I highly recommend reaching out to HMBANA. If you’re someone who may need breast milk for your baby, talk with your hospital or doctor about getting your baby a prescription for donor milk and if you’re in the northeast, you can directly call MMBNE abut receiving breast milk at 617-527-6263, extension 4.

Want to donate breast milk to someone in need? Contact:

Human Milk Banking Association of North America

Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast

NEC Society