Lifting the Cover: A Milk Bank Spotlight

There are many milk banks around the country that help families who are in need of human milk donations. The largest in the world is located in our founder’s backyard—Mother’s Milk Bank in Austin. Founded by neonatologists Dr. Sonny Rivera and Dr. George Sharpe, the doctors witnessed first hand how human milk had better results in the survival of preterm babies. At the time, the closest milk bank was in Denver.

Since it’s doors opened in 1999, the Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin has dispensed over 5 million ounces of pasteurized milk. The original goal of the founders was to serve the central Texas area. Today, the Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin serves babies in 22 states and 130 hospitals.

In honor of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, we wanted spotlight this incredible nonprofit. Melissa Fuentes, Program Coordinator at the Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin, was willing to take some time to chat with us to learn more about what they do and how their location is different from others across the country. Keep reading to find out about the science and how you can support the bank—even if pumping isn’t an option.

Why a baby might be a milk recipient

  • preterm birth
  • failure to thrive
  • malabsorption syndromes
  • allergies
  • feeding/formula intolerance
  • immunologic deficiencies
  • pre- or post-operative nutrition
  • infectious diseases

The milk bank’s process

  1. Mothers donate their frozen milk.
  2. The pasteurization room and team are prepared with procedures that diminish risks of contamination.
  3. Staff and volunteers pour thawed milk into flasks.
  4. A sample of each donor’s milk is scanned by infrared spectroscopy (the MilkoScan) to determine the fat, protein, and lactose content.
  5. Mixed pools of milk targeting the nutritional needs of sick babies are poured into BPA-free, tamper-evident bottles for pasteurization.
  6. Milk is heated to 62.5 °C for 30 minutes. Pasteurization kills viruses and bacteria that could be harmful to fragile infants, while retaining most of the milk’s beneficial components.
  7. Milk is cultured before and after pasteurization to ensure absence of bacteria.
  8. Pasteurized milk is stored in a deep freeze until dispensed to hospitals and outpatient babies.


All babies in need of human milk require a prescription and a letter from a physician that states the need for a medical reason, explains Fuentes. 

For babies born prematurely in the hospital or with a medical condition, doctors will request an amount from the bank for their patient. There are 60,000 babies born each year in the U.S. weighing less than 3.5 pounds. Many of these babies (and their families) rely on donor human milk. 

When the request for donor milk is due to formula intolerance, there must be documented to proof that the family has tried different types and that the baby’s growth charts show a decline in weight.

Because the milk bank depends entirely on volunteer donors for the milk supply, they must prioritize and provide milk first to babies with a medical need. Healthy infants can obtain donor milk only when the needs of babies with the most critical needs have been met.

Quality of Milk Matters

Not all pumped milk is created equally. The Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin helped to discover the nutritional variation in milk, which led to the standardization on pools of donor human milk. The milk bank scans a sample of each donor’s milk to determine the fat, protein, and lactose content. This transparency allows the bank to adapt the milk more precisely based on each recipients needs. Fuentes explains that “for an outpatient, the caloric content can be around 17,000 to 19,000 calories for a 15 pound baby. For the hospitalized preterm babies, the milk bank will send 20,000 calories to the hospital. For the three and a half pound babies, the hospital will then add protein or modify as needed.” 

Anyone can donate—even its not milk

In addition to needing human milk, the milk bank utilizes donations of money and volunteers to operate.  Unique to the Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin is the Charitable Care program. One hundred percent of donations earmarked for the program supports families who cannot afford the costs associated with receiving human donor milk. When your baby is hospitalized, the milk processing fee and shipping costs are billed to the hospital, and subsequently your insurance company. (Seventeen percent of all children in Texas and 10% in the U.S. lack health insurance.) Texas Medicaid currently covers the cost for donor milk for a limited period of time, when medically necessary. And if your baby is not hospitalized, the fee will be billed to the recipient family. In 2017, $200,000 to the Charitable Care program went to babies throughout the United States who needed donor milk to survive.

And of course, learn how to become a milk donor.

This piece is part of our series during National Breastfeeding Month 2018 in partnership with the Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin. Featured image from MMBA of Nathan Thomas Wylie.

Post Author
Alexandra Repetto
I'm Alexandra: a mother, wife, native Washingtonian turned New Yorker, raised Puerto Rican, beauty marketer by trade. I write those in no particular order, because they are all equally important and make up our family's every day. While juggling motherhood and working full time, I love connecting with other parents who have the same thoughts, struggles, questions and concerns! As I've learned, it takes a village to make this whole eco-system moving and I'm proud to be another parent on this journey with each of you.