• Bonnie Venter

Got Milk? Head over to the nearest Human-Milk Bank!

The ins and outs of donating human breast milk

If you’re thinking of the iconic 1990s ad campaigns featuring celebrities with milk moustaches to encourage consumption of milk – stop right there. Even though this post is about the importance of milk, it’s not exactly about cow’s milk but rather human milk. In the last few years, striking awareness campaigns have started to promote the benefits and importance of breastfeeding. The slogan ‘breast is best’ has become a trending topic. But what alternative does a new-born’s mother or an abandoned baby have if this life-sustaining resource isn’t available? Well, they can obtain donated milk from their nearest human milk bank.

What is a human milk bank?

A human milk bank collects, screens, stores, processes and distributes donor breast milk.

Even though the concept of a human milk bank might sound like a novelty it’s not. The first human milk bank opened in Vienna, Austria in 1909. Shortly after, human milk banks started popping up across the United States of America and Europe. Faced by a lack of knowledge on HIV in the 1980s human milk banks started to decline due to a fear of passing the virus on to the infants who received the milk. Luckily, these misconceptions didn’t lead to the eradication of human milk banks. Today, there are approximately 500 human milk banks in more than 37 countries worldwide. On an international level, the World Health Organisation (WHO) actively promotes the ‘breast is best’ lifestyle and recommends that an infant who can’t be fed mother’s milk should alternatively receive donor human milk.

South Africa and Human Milk Banks

Closer to home, South Africa’s first human milk bank was set up in 2000 with funding provided by UNICEF. Human milk banks, such as the South African Breastmilk Reserve and Milk Matters (along with the selfless donors) have played a vital role in making human milk banks a reality in the country. South Africa has experienced great success in human milk banking which clearly reflects in the statistics below:

Here’s a bit of insight into the ins and outs of donating breast milk to a human milk bank:

Why do we need human milk banks?

The answer is to save little lives (mostly extremely little lives). Premature babies (weighing under 1.8 kgs at birth) are the human milk banks’ biggest supporters. During their first two weeks of life, these little humans’ immune systems are still immature which leaves them vulnerable to infections and diseases. Donated breast milk helps them to fight these infections and diseases. In the long-term, the donated breast milk also improves their health and well-being. In South Africa, it’s estimated that about one in seven babies is born prematurely. With such a large potential supporter group of donated breast milk, we undeniably have a moral duty to ensure the success of human milk banks.

Who can become a breast milk donor?

Healthy, lactating mothers from all communities can be tested to become potential breast milk donors. A general health guideline is that she should not smoke or consume alcohol regularly, not take any medication or have received a blood transfusion in the last 12 months. For more detailed information on the criteria and forms to be completed please head over to The South African Breastmilk Reserve or Milk Matters

Donation Fact: 50ml of breast milk can feed a baby of less than 1kg for 24 hours.

The Patient Project’s legal perspective

When it comes to human milk banking, two important legal aspects need to be considered; the process of informed consent and the compensation of milk donors. Note: the legal considerations are not limited to these two aspects.

Informed consent is the foundation of any relationship where a person finds himself/herself in the healthcare environment. [Future posts will discuss informed consent in detail]. It’s important to remember that informed consent should be adjusted accordingly to the specific medical scenario you find yourself in. Typically, the informed consent process will differ when receiving a dreaded flu-shot as opposed to having an operation. Basically, informed consent means that you (as the patient) fully understand every single detail of the medical process and you willingly agree to it.

In human milk banking, informed consent is relevant for the milk donor and the infant (the milk recipient) who receives the milk.

A few patient project pointers for milk donor and recipient.

If you are the milk donor, the human milk bank representative should talk to you about the following:

  • How the human milk bank will process your donation;

  • What your donation will be used for;

  • The fact that your donated milk will not be returned to you;

  • Donating is an altruistic act;

  • The human milk bank may stop you from donating if you no longer meet the criteria. This is for safety purposes;

  • You may decide to stop donating. (You should be supported by the human milk bank if you make this decision);

Additionally, you should receive on-going support and health education.

If you have a baby who requires donated breast milk, the hospital staff must ask you whether you want to make use of donated breast milk.

The staff member should talk to you about the following:

  • Why your baby needs donated breast milk;

  • What are the benefits of feeding your baby the donated breast milk;

  • What are the risks involved with feeding your baby donated breast milk;

  • You have the right to refuse donated breast milk despite the medical teams’ opinion;

  • You have the right to seek a second opinion;

Will a milk donor receive compensation?

Donating breast milk (very much like donating blood) is a selfless act. It is legally prohibited to pay a donor for her breast milk. But, why? The answer to this can be found by consulting the National Health Act 61 of 2003, which to a large extent is the go-to legislation when faced with a legal question about healthcare in South Africa. In this context, the Act classifies breast milk as a tissue, in the form of a body fluid. Section 60(4)(a) of the Act strictly prohibits anyone from receiving any form of financial or other reward when they donate breast milk. Interestingly enough, the Act does elaborate and make provision for a reimbursement of reasonable costs the donor might have suffered.

Usually, these reasonable costs are regarded as money spent for travelling or if a donor had to take time off work. At the moment, it seems though as if this reimbursement is only a legal nicety and milk donors will in fact not receive compensation or reimbursement for any donations. If you’re thinking that you might have found a loophole and you’ll just cut out the middleman (in this case the human milk bank) and sell your breast milk from home think again. The Act also prohibits the selling of breast milk, unless it’s done via an authorised facility.

Perhaps, in this case, knowing that you have played vital role in saving a baby’s life is the greatest reward of them all.

Do you think human milk donors should receive some form of a reward? The Patient Project would like to know! Share your opinion in the comments section below.

Additional information used in this post is available from:




*Any references or links to organisations referred to in this post does not constitute my formal endorsement. I am merely sharing information for educational purposes.

46 views2 comments
  • White RSS Icon
  • Pinterest - White Circle
  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Instagram Icon
  • White Twitter Icon
  • RG white (2)


The Patient Project is made available for educational purposes only. The website should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a practicing legal professional. The information presented may not necessarily reflect the most current legal developments or judgments. The website materials may be changed, improved, or updated without notice. The author is not responsible for any errors or omissions. All views expressed on the website are the author’s own and do not represent the opinions of any entity with which the author has been, am now or will be affiliated with in the future.

© 2023 Bonnie Venter

Created by Jackal Media.