HomeHealth articlesbreast milk storageWhat Is a Human Milk Bank?

Many newborns can achieve proper nourishment when their mother's milk is unavailable. Learn more about milk banking through this article.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Richa Agarwal

Published At September 8, 2022
Reviewed AtSeptember 14, 2023


Human breast milk fulfills the nutritional needs and promotes the growth and development of infants. It protects the infants against infections till their immune systems become functional. Breast milk contains essential components, including macronutrients (proteins, lipids, carbohydrates), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and various biologically active substances. Despite many advances and research in formula milk, human milk remains the best nutritional supplement for the baby for the initial six months of their life. However, under certain circumstances, when breast milk is unavailable to the newborn, WHO UNICEF suggests donor breast milk as the best alternative for mother's milk.

What Is a Human Milk Bank?

A human milk bank is a center where breast milk is collected, screened, tested, and stored from a healthy lactating mother. Human banks pay particular attention to providing donor milk to high-risk infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends that human milk is an invaluable nutritional source for infants and that banked human milk is the best suitable alternative.

Where Can We Find Human Milk Banks?

The Comprehensive Lactation Management Centers (CLMCs) store breast milk and provide milk to high-risk infants in India. India has a total of 57 CLMCs in different states. Newborns suffering from high-risk neonatal infections need immediate care, including breast milk. Therefore, breast milk banks are mainly located in big hospitals providing neonatal care. However, you may also find human milk banks in non-government organizations like NGOs taking care of abandoned babies.

Who Can Donate Milk for Banking?

A human milk donation is a novel act as it could even be life-saving. Under these circumstances, a mother can donate milk,

  • Breast milk collection can be done by any healthy lactating mother willing to donate extra milk without compromising their baby's requirements.

  • Some mothers suffer from their baby loss after delivery. Such mothers can donate their milk for banking.

  • Sometimes, milk is collected from hospital working staff.

  • The mother should be willing to undergo screening to rule out any infections.

  • Surrogate mothers also donate breast milk sometimes.

Who Cannot Donate Breast Milk?

A mother should be perfectly healthy for milk donation as this could be a source of infection that newborns might transmit. There are some categories where a mother cannot be a donor even if she is willing to donate milk.

  • A mother carrying any source of infections is not eligible for donation as it can be transmitted to the newborns through the milk.

  • A donor is disqualified if she has a habit of taking any drugs or alcohol.

  • A mother cannot donate milk if she is HIV positive or if her partner is HIV positive.

  • If she or her partner has recently undergone an organ or tissue transplant, she could not be a milk donor.

  • If she takes any radioactive substance or other drugs, that could be hazardous for the newborns.

  • A mother with a smoking habit cannot donate as this could be a risk for infants.

  • A mother is prohibited from donating if she or her partner has had a blood transfusion history in the past six months.

  • If a mother is exposed to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, she is not eligible for donation as she can transmit the infection to the newborn. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is an infectious disease that causes degeneration of the brain.

Who Can Be the Recipient of Milk Banking?

Certain conditions need special care, and milk banking could be life-saving for such individuals; these include:

  • Premature babies.

  • Immunocompromised babies.

  • Babies with neonatal infections.

  • Babies with metabolic disorders.

  • Babies with malabsorption issues.

  • Babies who have allergies issues.

  • Babies who have an intolerance to other milk formulas.

Premature babies and babies with exceptional medical care needs are most eligible for milk banking.

How Is Breast Milk Collection Done for Banking?

Human milk banking is an unrestricted donation system where the mother has to go through the following steps before donating breast milk.

  1. The mother first underwent counseling and checked for all suitability factors.

  2. She has to fill out a written informed consent form.

  3. History taking and physical examination are then followed by taking a sample for laboratory tests.

  4. After checking all the reports, a healthy mother can donate milk to the designated center with the help of trained staff.

What Are the Effects of Pasteurization on Human Breast Milk?

The process of pasteurizing human breast milk inactivates many bacterial and viral contaminants. There is only minimal nutritional value reduction as most of the dietary components remain unaltered after pasteurization. Carbohydrates, fats, and salts remain unchanged. However, it is known to denature some protein, but it does not affect fat-soluble vitamins. It is known to alter the immunological factors present in breast milk. All the beneficial immune cells get inactivated along with the inactivation of bacteria and viruses.

Is There Any Involved Cost With Human Milk Banking?

Human milk bank comes under a non-profit organization where the donor receives no money for milk donation, nor does the bank sell the milk. However, the cost is associated with collecting, pasteurization, storage, and transportation. In most cases, the hospitals associated with milk banking bear this cost.

What Are the Benefits of Breast Milk for Premature Babies?

The infants receiving human breast milk in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) are likely to have fewer severe infections, lesser chances of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), and reduced colonization by pathogenic microorganisms. Some research suggests a decreased period of hospital stay for babies fed with expressed human breast milk. Most importantly, some data support an improved neurodevelopmental outcome in preterm infants fed with breast milk.


It is universally accepted by all health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) World Health Organization (WHO), that breast milk is the best nutritional supplement for infants during the first six months of their life. It fulfills all the child's essential requirements for their growth and development. It is essential to follow all medical guidelines for donation so that any source of infection could be prohibited.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Is the Objective of a Human Milk Bank?

The human milk bank serves the purpose of providing human milk to babies whose mothers cannot supply their breast milk as they are at risk of transmitting the disease to the infants, the mother is hospitalized for a long-time, or the child is hospitalized due to low birth weight. Although, as we know, breastfeeding provides the optimum nutrition for the baby, the human milk bank collects, screens, processes, and donates the milk to the needful.


How Many Human Milk Banks Are There in India?

The statistics in 2021 state that over 90 human milk banks are in India. The first human milk bank in India was established in 1989. About 3000 to 5000 babies benefited from the 800 to 1200 liters of milk collected yearly. They are specially fed to the sick and vulnerable babies in the ICU (intensive care unit).


What Are the Donation Requirements in a Human Milk Bank?

The ideal requirements of the donor to donate milk are:
 - A mother in good health.
 - A mother who has excessive milk after satisfactorily feeding her child.
 - A mother free from any infection or illnesses.
 - A mother negative for HIV, syphilis, hepatitis B, and C. 
 - A mother who does not smoke and drink alcohol.


What Was the Purpose of Wet Nurses?

Wet nurses are the mothers who breastfeed another mother’s child. They are also called breastfeeders and are employed when the mothers cannot breastfeed their children due to the risk of disease transmission. The breastfed children are called milk siblings, and they link to form a family in certain cultures.


Do Antibodies Exist in Donor Milk?

Breast milk and colostrum (breast fluid) contain antibodies that pass immunity from the mother to the baby. In addition, breast milk contains antibodies called immunoglobulins, such as Ig A, Ig M, Ig G, and secretory versions of Ig A and Ig M. However, when a mother gets infected with an infection, she further produces specific antibodies against the infection and transfers to the baby through breastmilk.


What Steps Are Taken to Process Donor Milk?

The milk collected from the donor is stored in the bank at -20 degree celsius. A day before processing, the milk is placed in the refrigerator overnight. On the day of pasteurization, the milk from donors is pooled to distribute the proteins, fat, and foreign substances. The typical processing techniques are high-temperature-short-time pasteurization,short-temperature-long-time pasteurization, and high-pressure processing.


Do They Sell Human Milk?

Yes, human milk is available for sale nowadays. However, doctors recommend purchasing human milk that is screened, processed and handled appropriately. Several human milk banks take voluntary steps to collect, process, and provide breastmilk to babies whose mothers cannot breastfeed their children.


How Long Does Donor Milk Remain Potent?

Human milk can remain potent if stored at room temperature for up to four hours, in the refrigerator for up to four days, in the freezer for about six months, and even for up to 12 months. However, freezing keeps the milk safe, and the storage times are significant for the best quality.


Is Donor Milk Preferable to Formula?

Yes, donor milk is preferred over formula milk. Although donor milk loses some nutritional value during pasteurization, it still stands better for babies than formula. In addition, donor milk can reduce the chance of infections and is more easily digested than formula milk. Hence, nowadays, doctors recommend mothers who cannot feed their babies provide them with donor milk and not the formula.


Do Antibodies Get Destroyed When Breast Milk Is Frozen?

When breast milk is frozen, there are chances of loss of immune factors, but not all. However, following the safety guidelines for protection and storage would help maintain the nutritional value of the milk. In addition, recent studies have shown the pass of antibodies against the coronavirus from a vaccinated mother to the baby receiving the milk.


Does Donor Milk Undergo Testing?

The donor who gives the milk is tested before donation. They should not have any history of illness. The mother is usually tested for HIV-1, HIV-2, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, syphilis, and human T-cell leukemia virus 1 and 2. In addition, the mother is also tested for any drug usage, as certain drugs can be found in the breast milk and can be detrimental to the baby.
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Dr. Richa Agarwal
Dr. Richa Agarwal

Obstetrics and Gynecology

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