How milk banks keep donated breast milk safe for babies, part 1

Like the generous individuals who donate blood, bone marrow or organs, those who donate breast milk can improve the lives of those in need — in this case, premature babies and other newborns with health issues, like allergies or digestive problems, that might depend on donated breast milk.

In 2009, Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, Tex., began prescribing donor milk to premature babies whose mothers couldn’t produce enough milk. They found that necrotizing enterocolitis rates dropped, reports NPR. The intestinal illness is extremely dangerous for underweight newborns.

This prompted other hospitals to adopt the same practice, leading to a shortage of donor milk. That’s where milk banks stepped in. Mostly nonprofits, the organizations collect, test and treat donated milk to make it safe for babies.

Milk banks have been around for a long time. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America says that the first milk bank opened in Vienna, Austria in 1909. They continued to open in Europe and North America over the next few decades, some of which still operate today. Donor milk banking has continued to grow as modern medicine allows more premature infants to survive long enough to need donated milk.

In some cases, mothers of newborns might not be able to produce enough milk for their child. As breast milk becomes increasingly recognized as the feeding method with the most health benefits — and as many babies may not be able to drink formula for health reasons — milk banks help provide nutrition for many babies around the world while easing the burden on the mother. Donor milk can even be prescribed by a doctor.

However, as with anything to do with body fluids, there are risks when it comes to sharing. Many women might not even be aware of the way certain substances can affect their milk, hence the need for thorough scientific testing and screening by milk banks before they pass the milk along to infants.

How do milk banks keep breast milk safe?

Safety standards, donor pre-screening processes, breast milk processing, handling and quality control practices vary by milk bank. Each bank sets its own protocols, and it’s good to research local options to learn more.

Generally, breast milk donors go through a medical screening, often with both a doctor and pediatrician. Regular donors are typically screened on a predetermined basis, such as every few months. What types of questions are asked at this stage differ depending on the milk bank, but oftentimes donors are required to not be taking any regular medications, to not use tobacco or illegal drugs, to not have recently received a blood transfusion or organ transplant and to not have consumed alcohol above a certain level on a daily basis.

Blood testing is usually involved in order to check for particularly dangerous viruses, like HIV, HBV, HCV and syphilis.

Once collected, the breast milk is usually pooled with milk from other donors and pasteurized to kill whatever bacteria may be present. Each milk bank has its own specific method for processing and pasteurizing, which can usually be found on each organization’s website.

Some milk banks specifically screen the donated milk for nicotine and drugs of abuse, as well as for any microbiological (especially Bacillus cereus, which can survive pasteurization) or viral contamination. This ensures that the final product given to newborns is as safe and nutritious as possible.

In part 2 of this blog, we go over some of the concerns that milk banks screen for in the first place.

Neogen has validated many of its test kits for use with breast milk testing, and is proud to support milk banks in their efforts to provide safe, nutritious milk to newborns. Neogen has over 100 kits to detect more than 300 common drugs of abuse. Click here to learn more.

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