History of Milk Banking

Wet Nursing

The act of mothers providing breastmilk for a baby that is not their own dates back thousands of years . Evidence of wet nursing is depicted in tomb paintings in ancient Egypt and is also found in the Code of Hammurabi from 2250 BC in which appropriate wet nurses are described. At the turn of the 20th century, most children were fed human milk, either from their own mother or from a wet nurse.

Throughout history, when a mother’s own milk was not available and wet nursing not possible, many different substances were utilized to attempt to feed infants. Before the mid-19th century, most of these products brought about poor results and often led to the death of the infant.

Infant Formula/Breastfeeding

Infant formula was developed in the early 1900’s to prevent the death of infants that did not have access to breastmilk but was not intended to replace breastfeeding. Unfortunately, the marketing of artificial feeding products (“formula”) was extremely successful and formula became widely accepted as a product that was equal to or better than human milk. Through decades of evidence and research, breastfeeding is once again the recommended method of infant feeding. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended by all infant health experts and is particularly vital for ill or premature infants. Breastfeeding greatly improves outcomes for all babies, but for premature or fragile newborns it may be the difference between life and death.

Need for Donor Milk

With advances in the care of premature and fragile infants, much has been learned about the benefits of human milk nutrition for these fragile babies. If maternal milk is insufficient or unavailable to high risk, ill or premature infants, the next best option is pasteurized donor human milk. The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics among many other health care organizations and associations agree that when a mother’s own milk is not available for fragile babies, the next best alternative is banked donor human milk. The practice of human milk banking is well over 100 years old. Human milk banking is older than blood banking and has a safer track record. Modern milk banking grew in the early 1900’s when wet nursing became less practical and the development of refrigeration and a greater knowledge of safe food processing allowed for pasteurization. The first milk bank in the United States was established in 1910 in Boston, MA.

The Ontario Dionne Quintuplets were famous recipients of donor human milk in 1934. These five tiny babies were not expected to survive. Donated breast milk was provided to these babies by women in the area with all efforts coordinated by the Junior League of Toronto. The donated milk was pooled, pasteurized and delivered on ice to the babies. The quints received 120 shipments of milk in all! These shipments are credited with keeping them alive and thriving. In the last 25 years of the twentieth century, milk banking began to grow as more and more advances developed in the care of the premature infant. To address the growing practice of milk banking, the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HM BANA) was established in 1985. The HMBANA organization was established with the primary goal to set standards through scientific evidence for all North American milk banks. These standards, first published in 1990, are followed by all HMBANA member milk banks and also provide a template for many other milk banking documents around the world. These standards are continually reviewed and updated by HMBANA.

Current Milk Banking

As more is learned about the unique components in human milk and protective qualities for premature infants, milk banking in North America continues to grow. HMBANA has experienced a dramatic increase in the amount of milk dispensed in the last decade. Click here to see where all of the HMBANA milk banks are located https://www.hmbana.org/milk-bank-locations