A milk bank is a facility which accepts, processes, stores, and ships human breast milk to other facilities. It is roughly analogous to a blood bank. Just like a blood bank, a milk bank provides a valuable health service, although milk banks are not as well publicized. Donation to a milk bank is open to lactating women of good health, and access to breast milk is limited through a doctor's prescription.
Many medical authorities believe that the best source of nutrition for a growing baby is breast milk. Breast milk is easy for babies to digest, and it has a number of valuable nutrients which promote the healthy development of young infants. The best source of breast milk is, of course, a baby's mother in most cases. Unfortunately, mothers are not always able to breastfeed, for a variety of reasons.
The need for a milk bank arises often in the case of premature babies, as the mother's milk has not yet developed. Some mothers may not be able to breastfeed because of concerns about communicable diseases or medications which the mother may be taking. In other cases, a mother's milk simply fails to develop. In all of these instances, a doctor may write a prescription for milk from a milk bank, to give the infant a chance at a good start in life.
Donors to milk banks are typically milk-producing mothers who are generating excess milk. Some mothers pump a small amount of extra milk every day specifically for donation to a milk bank, while others may simply end up with extra stored milk, especially as their infants start to switch to other food sources. Typically, the donor is screened for diseases which may be transmitted through breast milk, and she is asked to refrain from the use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco while she donates.
The idea of a milk bank is a natural extension of the concept of a wet nurse. It puts milk into the stomachs of those who need it. Because milk banks carefully screen all of their milk products, they can also ensure that the milk they provide is safe and healthy to consume. Typically, the milk is pasteurized and frozen so that it will remain stable until it is needed. While pasteurized and frozen milk is not quite as nourishing as fresh breast milk, it is safe and readily available.
The first milk bank in the United States was established in Boston in 1911. Several other nations offer milk banking services, and mothers who are interested in donating should contact their doctors. Parents who are in need of milk from a milk bank can discuss the issue with a doctor, who will write a prescription and connect the parents with a nearby milk bank. Milk is typically shipped, frozen, directly to the door of the parents in need.