The History of Milk Banking

What is "milk banking"? 

frozenmilk.jpgWhile it may seem like a "new" idea, it's actually been around a while, and paying women for their breast milk donations was considered a normal and expected part of compensating a mother to "part" with her precious breast milk! The benefits of donor milk were acknowledged back then and continue to be held in high respect in the medical community, and increasingly in the general population.

It wasn't until around the 1970s when breast milk donation began to be considered a "gift". Milk sellers were still considered "donors" and continued to receive payment of 10 cents per ounce steadily for thirty years from one prominent milk bank (Pineau).

Sure, not every woman could produce enough milk to qualify as a milk donor, but the ones who did were often more than generous enough in their excess milk to provide for many recipient babies. And the pressing need for donor milk was always a demand that far exceeded supply, making such able donors even more valuable.

Why pay milk donors? 

Milk donors have been formally receiving payment for their donations since as early as 1910. It's easy to imagine how receiving such compensation would greatly impact the milk donors and their immediate families:

"Milk selling allowed mothers who had few employment opportunities outside the home to purchase household goods, pay for children’s education, and, in at least one case, buy a house" (Swanson).


Milk donors today also benefit from paid milk donation, using their "milk money" to pay for diapers, groceries, bills, education or even starting their own family business! 

Founders of milk banks believed in the benefits of donor milk and understood the value of retaining adequate suppliers aka milk donors. There was no negative social stigma surrounding the act of donating one's breast milk nor the concept of paying a mother for such generous donations. It was the "norm", and the "right" thing to do for mothers who had excess milk! 

Dr. Raymond Hoobler, founder of the Detroit Mothers’ Milk Bureau, referenced paid milk donation as “building up a new profession for woman—that of a producer of human milk...[one that] in no way interferes with her duties of housewife and mother" (Swanson).

Milk banks like the Boston Directory and the San Francisco Mothers’ Milk Bank followed a set of guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 1943 standards for milk banks. The AAP advised that payment for milk donations was "[intended to ensure donors’] good standards of living and relief from financial worry” (Pineau).

Milk payments have always been intended to help provide the donor mother and her new baby with additional financial resources most families need during this critical time. For mothers who had once found themselves in the NICU with their own infants, the opportunity to provide donor milk to other babies in critical need has been an opportunity they feel a compassionate calling towards, and milk banks have offered a safe medium to be able to do so, with payments providing families with a means to help repay the medical expenses of such a NICU stay. 

Despite recent domestic controversy in paid milk donation programs in the United States, many milk banks in other countries have a long standing history of paid milk donations and continue to offer payment for their qualified milk donations. 

"Mothers are paid 145 Danish Crowns (DKr) (about US$24.00 at current exchange rates) per liter for their milk. This money is tax-free. Mothers are paid monthly. In order to receive the stipend, however, milk must meet bacteriological criteria." (Arnold) 

Critics of paid milk donation have cited concerns about the quality of milk donations when payment is offered, fearing the incentive will result in diluted or adulterated milk donations, among other issues. Foreign milk banking models, like those in Denmark (offering payment of approx. $.70/ounce) and abroad, have clearly made it a best practice to test all milk donations and only accept and offer payment for those donations which meet their quality assurance standards. It's peculiar as to why so much controversy has arisen in domestic paid-donation programs which follow the same protocol. 

Why call it a "bank"?


Milk "banks" were originally referred to as Milk "Bureaus", "Depots", and "Directories"! It wasn't until the popularity of "blood banks" that the phrase "Milk Bank" emerged into popular use (Swanson). The concept of making deposits (milk donations) and withdrawals (donor milk recipients) helped milk bank administrators keep track of their inventory and manage how many "deposits" have been received to balance the total "withdrawals" needed by local babies. As simple a calculation as balancing one's checkbook, yet with results that affected many lives directly!

Some of the early milk banks were:

  • Boston Directory
  • Detroit Mothers’ Milk Bureau
  • San Francisco Mothers’ Milk Bank

What else do you imagine when you think of "milk bank"? If you've ever expressed and stored breast milk, you might see a freezer full of "liquid gold", frozen pumped milk that ranges in color from white to yellowish gold (a property typical of colostrum or a mother's first milk) which is coincidentally another fun reason to think of milk banks in terms of a "bank"!  

 sources of reference:

Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America by Kara W. Swanson 

  • Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America

    ~ Kara W. Swanson (author) More about this product
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From Commodity to Donation: Breast Milk Banking in the United States, 1910 to the present by Marisa Gerstein Pineau


Donor Milk Banking in Scandinavia by Lois D.W. Arnold, MPH IBCLC; published in the Journal of Human Lactation 1999


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