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Donor breast milk and milk banks

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Human donor breast milk from a 'milk bank' is a great alternative if a baby is not able to get it straight from the source.
  • Milk banks test and pasteurise donor breast milk to make sure there is nothing in it that could harm a baby.
  • It is also possible to source donor breast milk informally through social media networks, but there are some important safety issues to consider.
  • If you are considering donor milk, it’s important to know the benefits and risks first.

Breast milk provides all the nutrition your baby needs for their first 6 months. Human donor breast milk from a 'milk bank' is a great alternative if a baby is not able to get it straight from the source. If you are considering donor milk, it’s important to know the benefits and risks first.

What is donor breast milk?

A mother's breast milk is the best possible nutrition for a newborn baby. A very good alternative is human donor breast milk. Donor milk is expressed by another woman and given to a milk bank.

Donor milk can be especially helpful for sick or premature babies who can’t receive their own mother’s milk.

Where can I get donor breast milk?

Women breastfeeding other mothers' babies isn’t a new concept. Informal sharing of breast milk has been documented in maternity wards in Australia since the 1940s.

Since 2006, several formal milk banks for premature and sick babies have been established around the country.

Parents usually get donor breast milk through:

If you are considering donor milk, it’s important to know the benefits and risks.

When can donor breast milk help?

Sometimes it’s hard for mothers of premature babies to make enough milk. Breast milk has special proteins called antibodies. These antibodies protect children from infections and diseases. Giving donor breast milk to sick or premature babies helps nourish them and protect them from disease.

Research shows that, compared with infant formula, human donor milk can lower the risk of infections and a severe gut disorder in low birth weight babies.

A baby doesn’t have to be premature or low birth weight to get donor breast milk. Donor milk can help when:

How do milk banks work?

Breastfeeding women express breast milk, freeze it and deliver it to the milk bank. Sometimes the milk bank can pick it up.

Formal milk banks screen women to make sure they are healthy (see 'Is donor breast milk safe?', below).

The milk bank may give sterilised collection bottles, labels, and breast pumps. They will give instructions for women on how to transport and store the milk safely.

The milk bank pasteurises the milk to kill any viruses or bacteria. Milk banks do not pay donors.

These milk banks give human donor milk to hospital NICUs in Australia:

It’s also possible to source donor breast milk informally, through social media networks. These groups put parents in touch with donors and they share breast milk privately. But there are some important safety issues to consider.

Is donor breast milk safe?

Breast milk is a human bodily fluid. It that can, in rare cases, transmit viruses like HIV and hepatitis C, as well as bacteria and other germs.

Formal milk banks must test and pasteurise donor breast milk. This is to make sure there is nothing in it that could harm a baby.

Milk bands also screen donors to make sure they don’t have any medical conditions or lifestyle factors that could affect their breast milk.

Donor breast milk from private networks is not properly processed or pasteurised. The networks typically provide guidelines about screening donors and storing and transporting breast milk safely. It’s important to understand the possible risks before you use a donor’s milk for your baby.

Milk banks have specific criteria for who can donate breast milk, and it is best to contact them directly to see if you can donate.

The milk bank will do a blood test on you and ask you questions about your lifestyle — as though you were donating blood. You might be asked:

  • whether you have a health condition
  • if you have ever had tested positive for diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C
  • what medicines you are taking
  • how much alcohol and caffeine you consume
  • whether you smoke, use nicotine patches, or use recreational drugs

Can I use baby formula instead of donor milk?

Sick and premature babies need extra nutrition and fluids so they can 'catch up' with their growth. Breast milk is best, but it’s not always an option for parents. Special baby formula designed for pre-term babies will also meet their nutritional needs.

For other babies, commercial infant formulas have enough nutrients for healthy growth. Formula is the only safe alternative to breast milk for babies under 12 months.

Resources and support

If you have any questions about breast milk, contact the Australian Breastfeeding Association's National Breastfeeding Helpline on 1800 686 268.

The Mothers' Milk Bank Charity is based in Queensland but it also services other states and territories.

Read more about the Red Cross Milk Bank, which services New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.

Organisations that provide information on private milk sharing and connect donors with parents include:

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: April 2023

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