Donor Breastmilk – A Preemie’s Life-line

Breastfeeding is how a mother is designed to feed her baby and while we know there is so much more to breastfeeding than simply nutrition, breast milk is not commonly thought of as a treatment in the way a medication is. However, its effect for premature babies is so potent that it would be hailed as a miracle drug were it a medication – it prevents many infections and complications, helps heal them and at the end of the day, it saves lives.

In the high-tech world of the modern Neonatal ICU there is no substitute for breastmilk. All over the world it is recognised that only breastmilk offers premature babies the nutrition and protection essential for their survival. When a vulnerable baby’s own mother is unable to supply breastmilk, a breastmilk bank, such as Milk Matters, can offer this life saving gift from another mother.










“My twins were born at 27 weeks weighing 610g and 770g! Milk Matters supplied our NICU and donor milk really was a life saver for my twins! You guys are awesome xx” said Nicola H

Very low birth weight premature babies, weighing less than 1 500g, are particularly vulnerable to potentially fatal complications including necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a life-threatening, acute inflammatory disease of the intestines. Mortality rates of babies affected by NEC can be as high as 50%, while babies who do survive may be left with irreversible complications.

Not only are the costs huge in terms of the lives lost and the long-term medical complications families and babies have to endure in the long-term, but the financial costs are enormous.

Fortunately there is a short-term, alternative, safe feeding option for vulnerable babies, namely screened, pasteurised, donor breastmilk. Donor milk is a cost effective alternative to formula that reduces the incidence of NEC dramatically, reduces neonatal mortality and morbidity rates and is devoid of negative side effects.

In fact breastmilk fed babies thrive on the irreplaceable nutrients, growth factors and antibodies in human milk and require fewer antibiotics, less surgery, spend less time in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) and are discharged sooner than babies receiving formula. It also results in better breastfeeding outcomes as babies can remain breastmilk fed while their mothers increase their milk supply and breastfeeding is not undermined by the use of formula.

Milk Matters, a Cape Town human milk bank, provides donor milk to premature babies in state and private hospitals 365 days of the year, when their own mothers can provide only part or none of the breastmilk their tiny baby needs for the best chance of survival and good health outcomes.

Leigh & Luigi, Patrick’s parents, say: “We received donor milk through Milk Matters for our 28 weeker and it was life changing. Keep up the good work both Milk Matters and donor moms. You guys are awesome!!!” 

The two main reasons for Milk Matters supplying donor milk is when a mother is too ill to provide breastmilk for her own baby or is unable to physically be with or regularly visit her baby, bringing her own breastmilk.

Donor milk may also be needed for a short time in the case of multiple births such as twins or triplets, when the mother may initially not have enough breastmilk for her babies. Occasionally donor milk is needed for a baby whose mother has had breast surgery or is undergoing treatment such chemotherapy. Sadly some recipient babies have been abandoned or orphaned.

The demand for donor milk always exceeds supplies and continues to increase, so the challenge is to create more awareness and boost the numbers of breastmilk donors and therefore the quantities of donor milk.

A vital message is that just 50ml of breastmilk – a mere 2,5 tablespoons! – can feed a baby of under 1kg for a full 24 hours. This means mothers do not need an abundant breastmilk supply in order to donate their breastmilk and regular donations of 50ml or more make the world of difference.

Some donor mothers make once-off donations of stock-piled breastmilk that is not required for their own baby, whilst other mothers donate varying quantities of breastmilk for periods varying from a few weeks to a year or more.

Milk Matters provides donors with sterile containers, which can be collected from one of the 28 Milk Matters depots, where batches of frozen milk can also be delivered.

Ensuring the safety of the donor milk we provide is of paramount importance to Milk Matters. To facilitate this, all donor mothers are required to complete a screening form and undergo an initial HIV and Hepatitis B blood test, at no expense to the donor mother.

All milk is pasteurized to inactivate bacteria and viruses in the milk, including the HIV, and milk is also sent for microbiological testing. Information is provided to donor mothers and recipient hospitals on the safe handling of donor milk.

Neonatologist Dr. Alan Horn of Groote Schuur Hospital says, “Donor breastmilk is the easiest and most available way we have to save pre-term lives.”

Thousands and thousands of premature babies have received donated breastmilk – a gift of life and hope from the over 2000 mothers who have donated breastmilk to Milk Matters so far.

Breastmilk donation is a unique opportunity for breastfeeding mothers to make a difference to lives of some of our most vulnerable babies – a life-saving difference!

A neonatal ICU nursing sister knew all too well the risks of formula feeding when she gave birth to a 990g baby when she was only 6 months and 4 days pregnant, but all her attempts to produce enough breastmilk failed. “I knew formula was not even an option”, she said, gratefully accepting donor milk from Milk Matters for her tiny son.

 “I will forever be indebted to all the mothers who donated breast milk to Ashton. Your milk gives these small babies hope and a chance at life. Ashton is now a normal, typical boy of his age and an example of the miracle of milk, love, and prayers.



I’ve heard that the milk from mothers with babies over a year old cannot be donated to newborns/prems? Is this accurate? I have milk to donate but my twins are over a year old so not sure it would be accepted?


Hi Kate, thank you for your question. I have forwarded it to Kath Megaw, and will revert back at the soonest. Kind regards Natasha x

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *