More mums do this than you might imagine.
When we put a call out through the UK Association for Milk Banking (UKAMB ) asking for milk donors to come forward with their stories, we had hoped to speak to one or two mothers but we were overwhelmed by the number of responses we received.
These women were eager to come forward as they felt that despite their numbers there is little awareness of milk donation in the UK.
Here are the stories of how 14 women became milk donors:
1. Angela Birkin, 38, from west London is mum to Henry, four, Charlie, two, and Emily, three months.
My eldest son needed donor milk to give him life. He was born on my birthday just over four years ago and was delivered by emergency caesarean section at 32 weeks, weighing just 3lb 2oz.
Henry spent his first few weeks in the neonatal unit and was fed through a tube whilst we waited for his sucking reflex to develop. As he was born prematurely, it took a few days for my milk to come in and so Henry received donor milk during this period.
That was the first time I’d ever heard about donor breast milk. I was very grateful it was available as breast milk contains important antibodies to support a particularly weak immune system and helps an immature gut to develop.
Then when I had my son Charlie two years later I offered to donate some milk as I wanted to give something back and I’ve just had another baby, Emily, so I’ve just started expressing milk again.
I’ve mentioned donating milk in passing to a couple of mums I know and it gets a mixed reaction. Some people say it’s amazing, as though it’s a difficult thing to do – and it’s really not - but others look at you with a disgusted expression and you can imagine they’re thinking eugh, yuck.
That really annoys me because there’s nothing weird about it. You’re giving something life sustaining to a premature child, what’s weird about that?
People don’t think donating blood is gross, but unfortunately breast milk still carries a bit of a stigma.
There’s a small window of opportunity where you can help babies by donating milk. It's for a short period of time, it’s minimal effort and it costs you nothing, so why wouldn’t you?
Why is milk donation important?
Breast milk is especially critical for the healthy survival of very low birth weight, premature and sick infants. Mothers of these infants may be unable to provide sufficient human milk for their needs particularly in the early days following the baby’s birth. Milk banks affiliated with EMBA and Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) follow rigorous protocols to screen donors, test, process and dispense the donated milk and to provide safe donor human milk to these infants.
- Statement from the EMBA and the HMBANA
2. Kate Orr, 39, from South Yorkshire is a model and mum to Felix Bear, six, and Sonny Rex, 14 months.
I’m not going to run any marathons because my knees are knackered, so one way I can give is to donate my breast milk.
Some people donate blood or give money, I chose to donate my milk.
It soon becomes a very easy thing to do because it becomes part of your routine. I’d sterilise my bottles and get my pumping equipment ready beforehand then once Sonny had gone to bed and I'd eaten dinner, I’d just sit down, put Netflix on and pump away for half an hour.
Once I'd filled a bottle I'd put it in a plastic sandwich bag in the freezer. Then one of these amazing volunteer bikers, who don’t get enough credit, would come and pick it up and take it all the way from Hertfordshire down to the Queen Charlotte’s hospital.
It is a personal thing and I wouldn’t want to put any pressure on someone to do it if it’s not for them, but it was my personal mission.
For me it was an important thing to do because there are so many little babies out there whose mothers die or their mothers can’t produce enough milk because they’re premature, and they can’t have the formula because it would make them very poorly.
3. Gabriela Houston, 29, from London, is an assistant editor and mum to six-month-old Scarlett.
Once you have your own baby you realise just how precious the opportunity to feed and nourish is and it makes you feel very empathetic to women who can’t do it for any reason, especially if their baby’s ill or premature.
Also after having a baby you can feel a bit cut off from the world, like you and your baby are in your own little bubble, and I think being able to contribute and help others can help with the baby blues, as it makes you feel needed.
It’s not like donating blood there’s no needles and no pain involved and it doesn’t require you to go anywhere. It’s very easy, in my opinion.
I express every morning while having breakfast, so it takes me 15 to 20 minutes to get the bottle full and then I just label it and freeze it. That’s it.
It’s not a big sacrifice to make and once you realise that it can actually save the lives of little babies it’s not a difficult choice to make.
4. Kehinde Babatunde, 28, from Tower Hamlets is a nurse and mum to Oreoluwa, one.
My daughter was born very prematurely and the doctors said to me: “Apart from all the medication we’re giving your daughter your breast milk is the most important thing because she absorbs it more.”
So that got me thinking, ok if it’s the best thing for her then lets get pumping. I had to express around every three hours and I was producing so much milk that I joked to the nurse I didn’t mind if she wanted to give some to babies who weren’t mine. And she said: “Well actually you can donate it if you want."
I could see how healthy my baby was getting so of course I wanted to help other mums who were struggling to express.
I was producing so much milk I had to buy a new freezer just to store the milk in and sometimes the courier would come with his little box and I had so much milk to give him it filled two of his boxes.
I'm glad I did it. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done.
How do I become a milk donor?
Firstly, find your local milk bank on the UKAMB website and contact them to discuss your specific situation and to ensure that they are able to accept your milk.
The milk bank will send you a blood test kit to check for for HIV, Syphilis, HTLV and Hepatitis. You can make an appointment with your local GP or nurse to take the blood test and the kit is then sent back to the milk bank.
The milk bank will send you bottles in which to store and freeze your milk, and a temperature record chart, to ensure that your freezer keeps the stored milk at a suitable temperature (below 18 degrees celsius).
Once you have collected a batch you can arrange for a medical courier to come and collect it and take it to the milk bank.
5. Rachel Ellman, 34, from London, is a secondary school teacher and mum to Oisín, 15 months.
I had quite a difficult labour. We were lucky and the baby was fine, but I went on to have difficulty breastfeeding as Oisín was tongue-tied which was obviously incredibly emotional and difficult.
I had great breastfeeding support from the NHS, which I was really grateful for and I felt like I wanted to give a bit back in some way.
It made me think about what it would have been like if Oisín had been in neonatal intensive care or if I hadn’t been able to breastfeed and I know I would have wanted the absolute best for him.
Formula feeding is a positive choice for lots of people but if you were planning to breast feed but you couldn't, you would really want to have the option that your baby could have breast milk.
Once I could finally breastfeed it and I had the hang of it, I produced a lot of milk - partly because my baby had been tongue-tied so he’d been overfeeding. So I thought I’d make good use of it.
When you’ve got a small baby you can feel quite cut off from the world. I know I did as I’d been working full time up until then, so I was keen to do something to feel part of a community, but it would have been impossible to do most other forms of volunteering with a newborn.
You don't even really need to leave your home to become a milk donor. I used to express mostly in the late morning while my baby had a nap, then when he was a little bit older and more active I'd do it while I was feeding him. I’d feed him on one side and use the pump on the other side.
When my freezer was full I'd call up the volunteer couriers, and this bloke would turn up on his massive motorbike and very politely come in for a cup of tea and pick up a load of my breast milk - which is pretty bizarre if you think about it, but the couriers work so hard for free, that it’s pretty motivating meeting them.
6. Sneha Kotak-Tailor, 34, from London, is mum to Elina, one.
Prior to finding out about donating breast milk, I thought I was going to have to throw away 80 bags of frozen breast milk and that thought made me really depressed.
My daughter was fully fed on breast milk, but my flow was way too much, so I started storing breast milk in the freezer for rainy days and it soon built up. So I was very relived and happy to find out my milk could be of help to other children who are in real need.
I hate the idea of my milk going to waste when it can be so useful. I’m a big believer in donating things if I can and I want to donate my organs when I die, because if I can help somebody then why not?
Now if it comes up in conversation with another mum that she has lots of left over breast milk then I would definitely suggest she donate it, especially as the milk bank made it so easy for me.
The history of milk sharing
The sharing of human milk has existed since the beginning of time. Mothers have either breastfed children who were not biologically related to them or expressed and shared milk with a child other than their own.
- Statement from the EMBA and the HMBANA
7. Esther Sabel, 36, from Hertforshire, is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and mum to Joshua, six, and Tara, three.
I first started donating when my first baby was six weeks old and built this into the rhythm of our daily life.
When I had my second baby, I started donating as soon as my milk came in and Joshua, who was three, used to help take the bottles from the freezer when the courier came and understood how the milk was "going to the hospital to help very little, poorly babies."
Some time after, close friends of ours gave birth to a very premature little girl and Joshua was able to make the link that this premature baby might have needed donor milk to survive.
As a doctor helping children is a part of my identity and it was nice to be able to do something positive while on my maternity leave. It’s a very rewarding thing to do.
It only takes about 10 minutes every day, but you have to commit to doing it every day so that your body gets used to producing a certain amount of milk - and it can be quite challenging to find enough room in your freezer. But those are the only inconveniences I’d say.
If you’re thinking about donating I would say go ahead and do it, because it’s an opportunity that’s unique to that time period when you’re a new mum, which makes it a very special way to do something positive.
8. Jenna Kay, 31, from London, works in sales at a an investment bank and is mum to Elise, one.
We had an extremely tough time with my daughter when she was born, as she had severe reflux and suspected allergies.
I loved breastfeeding her and was very lucky to have lots of milk. Sadly however she really reacted to my breast milk and would scream for hours at a time. After seeing several specialists it was recommended we move my daughter onto a hypoallergenic formula called neocate.
I was heart broken at the time as I loved the bonding time with my daughter and always believed breastfeeding would be best for her.
When I gave up I was in a lot of pain and so was regularly expressing and throwing away the milk. It felt so sad to be throwing away perfectly good breast milk, especially when there were girls in my NCT group who were struggling to produce enough milk.
So I decided to find out if there was a way for me to be giving this milk to babies who really need it, so that some good could come from having to give up breast feeding.
After some online research I discovered the milk bank and then immediately started sterilising and storing all my breast milk.
I expressed for every feed and did as much as I could until my milk eventually dried up. It really brought me comfort during this difficult time to know that even though I couldn't give my milk to my own daughter, I was able to help babies who needed it even more than she did.
Donating to milk banks
Mothers with spare milk have the option to donate it to an EMBA or HMBANA affiliated milk bank.
These milk banks do not financially profit from or commercialise human milk and the milk they provide will be life enhancing and often life saving for low birth weight and premature babies or infants recovering from serious gut complications and surgery.
The increased demand from neonatal intensive care units for the growing numbers of premature infants will only be met by more mothers choosing to donate their milk to human milk banks.
The provision of safe, screened and tested human milk by milk banks has also been shown to promote and support breastfeeding enabling more babies who were born too soon to be discharged home fully breastfeeding and more mothers to continue to breastfeed.
-Statement from the EMBA and the HMBANA
9. Elana Stern, 27, from Hendon, is a chemistry teacher and mum to Maytal, five months.
Breastfeeding was always something I wanted to do for my daughter but, even though it is such a natural process, it is far from easy.
I have friends and family who had to give it up for various reasons, mainly because of the inability to produce enough milk or because of infections related to breastfeeding, and I know that for many not being able to breastfeed can be very difficult emotionally.
As I am fortunate enough to produce enough milk for both my daughter and for others donating really was a "no brainer"; it's free and only costs me time and freezer space. I'm grateful that I am able to share my milk and it's amazing that milk banks exist to give parents the option if they so choose.
I’m really not trying to sound like Mother Teresa - it’s just milk, but whenever I pump I feel really accomplished.
It’s a really weird feeling because all I’m doing is putting milk in the freezer, but I feel like I’ve got something done today.
I started donating when Maytal was about two and a half months old and I’m still donating now.
10. Kerry Henderson, 45, from West Sussex, is a geologist and mum to Luke, six and James, 14 months.
With my first baby I had great difficulty breastfeeding. Luke wouldn’t latch on because he has an inherited gag reaction, so I expressed for him.
I had quite an inefficient pump so I always only just had enough breast milk to feed him, even if I spent 45 minutes expressing.
I was prepared for the same thing to happen the second time around, but I was also very aware that having an older child to look after I couldn’t spend forever expressing. So I got a hands free double breast pump and it turned out to be unbelievably efficient.
I would express of just 10 minutes and have more than enough milk, so we quickly ran out of freezer space and we ended up buying another fridge freezer.
When it then became obvious we were going to run out of freezer space again, that’s when I looked into donation, as milk is too precious to waste.
I donated for five months and was able to donate over 50 litres of milk in that time, which I was quite amazed at given that I was feeding my own baby as well and that last time I only ever just had enough. It's amazing the difference a good breast pump makes!
The risks of sharing milk outside milk banks
In recent years, increasingly, mothers who are unable to breastfeed or supply enough of their milk for their full term, healthy babies have come to use networks developed through the internet to obtain breastmilk. These connect them with mothers who wish to share or to sell their milk.
Human milk, when shared outside milk banks that follow accepted guidelines, does not provide the same safety guarantees and the possibility of serious adverse consequences cannot be ruled out.
The main risks of sharing milk are that it is contaminated with pathogenic bacteria or that it contains viruses such as HIV, Hepatitis or HTLV (Human T Lymphotropic Virus).
In addition, the shared milk may contain medications taken by the mother as well as alcohol, nicotine, drugs and other contaminants.
Harmful bacteria ingested in large quantities through breastmilk may lead to severe infections including septicaemia. Viruses such as HIV and HTLV in breastmilk can cause serious illnesses, some of them manifesting several years after contamination.
Screening of donors, milk testing and appropriate pasteurization, as routinely done in human milk banks, greatly reduces the risks associated with sharing breastmilk.
We advise all parents to be aware of the risks involved in feeding a baby with another mother’s milk and before doing so to consult a qualified healthcare professional such as a pediatrician, neonatologist or hospital infant feeding specialist.
-Statement from the EMBA and the HMBANA
11. Angela Kay, 42, from New Zealand, is a director of digital video and media for a branding agency and mum to Emrys, 15 months old.
Emrys was born at 25 weeks and I consider the donor milk he received to be life-saving.
Due to Emrys's extreme prematurity, once I was able to establish enough supply, expressing became my daily focus whilst he was in hospital. It was my connection to him and nutritionally gave him the very best chance of surviving and thriving.
I developed a large excess supply of milk whilst Emrys was in hospital and for me there was no question about donating.
I had experienced first hand how important it was to have donor milk and wanted to make sure other sick and premature babies also had access to it and through this, the best chance of survival.
At that age it can be the difference between life or death because very premature babies who aren’t getting breast milk have a higher risk of something called necrotising enterocolitis (NEC), which is a sort of break down of the gut and can be fatal.
I hadn’t had the reason to consider it before then and to to be honest I really don’t think I was aware of it, the only type of "breast milk donation" I'd heard of before Emrys was born, was that there had been some ice cream made from donated milk.
I completely appreciate that new mothers are time poor, but many will be building up a surplus of milk without even realising it - and if that's true for you then it really doesn't take much more time to donate it.
12. Bianca Nathan, 32, from Australia, is a supply chain consultant and mum to Luke, 10 months.
I had "overactive let-down", which meant I had a lot of milk and it would come out very very fast.
My son wouldn’t feed through the night, he didn’t have a dream feed, so I would wake up at about five o'clock in the morning with very painful engorged breasts, so I would express a full bottle when I woke up and then when Luke woke up I was already replenished and fine to feed him. So expressing to donate never interfered with feeding my son.
Some people have said that getting up so early just too express is a very big commitment, but nearly every morning it was my body waking me up anyway because it was painful so I had to do something.
I could get a whole 200ml of milk it would take me five to 10 minutes, whereas other friends of mine could spend 45 minutes expressing and they’d get 10ml so I think everyone’s very different in that regard.
I have always wanted to help people but I’ve never found anything that works for me - I've never donated blood as I don't like needles -so when this became an opportunity I thought, why not?
13. Robyn Haselfoot, 40, from London, is mum to Aurora, six and Solaris, three.
I was also born two months early and was very low birth weight, as was my sister. I also suffered for severe preeclampsia during labour with my first daughter (but recovered quickly), so I was well aware how lucky my daughter and I were to have a relatively easy nursing start.
I have a background I biological anthropology which has made me very aware and quite passionate about the value of breast milk, particularly for vulnerable babies.
When donating I didn’t have to do anything that I wouldn’t do for my own baby in terms of sterilising things.
I got on fine with a pump and it didn't bother my eldest daughter while feeding her on the other side, so it was really no trouble.
The second time around I didn't donate as I found it hard to fit in expressing with running around after a very active little girl and Solaris was more sound sensitive so didn't like the pump.
My best friend and her baby were recently in intensive care due to a severe clotting disorder and early delivery. Her son received a small amount of donor milk for which she was profoundly grateful.
Sometimes I wonder how many babies I helped feed. It feels quite awesome to have been given the opportunity to help so many other little people (and their mothers) at such a crucial time by doing something so simple.
14. Clare Bogard, 38, from north London, is a fundraiser and mum to Alicia, seven and Zach, four.
I consider myself lucky to have been able to breastfeed my children. Breastfeeding is great, but it isn’t always easy.
My first child was jaundiced and a little bit poorly with a blood disorder, I wanted to breastfeed her but I struggled. I had to feed her for hours on end and supplement with bottles.
So I was very nervous about breastfeeding the second time and was all prepared for it to be hard, but actually Zach just fed like a dream and I was able to also express.
I felt so lucky and I wanted to be able share that with other women and that's why I started donating my breast milk.
It's incredibly hard if you’ve got a sick baby at the beginning, so I just wanted to help.
I wouldn’t have been able to do it with my first, because I dreaded the idea of expressing after sitting feeding her for hours on end. But with my second it only took me about 10 to 15 minutes to express so it wasn’t an imposition at all.
If anyone is considering it I would say go for it 100%, I’m very glad I did - but only if it’s easy for you. The first six months with a new baby is the hardest time, so you have to do whatever is right for you.
For more information or to find out how you can support the charity visit the UK Association for Milk Banking website.