How a human milk bank works

Human milk banks ensure that infants in emergency situations receive breast milk

Vittorio Milanes
Health workers wearing laboratory gowns, gloves, hair caps and face masks inspect breast milk stored in a refrigerator at a human milk bank
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Joey Reyna
20 March 2019

Human milk banks provide safe breast milk to infants in emergency situations, such as those who are affected by disasters, are critically ill or born prematurely. Breast milk provides all the nourishment that infants need in their first six months of life.

It’s critical that newborns must be exclusively breastfed (i.e. feeding them only breast milk, not even water, during the first six months) to give them a healthy start in life. 

According to a 2017 report by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, only 34% of children under six months in the Philippines are exclusively breastfed.

UNICEF supported the establishment of the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center (EVRMC) Human Milk Bank in Tacloban City, Leyte, by providing special equipment and training for staff. Because the hospital is a rescue and relief operations hub in a typhoon-prone region, it has the potential to provide breast milk to vulnerable children in six provinces. 

A nurse talks to a woman inside a human milk bank
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Joey Reyna

Human milk banks rely on breast milk donations from lactating women. A nurse screens, counsels and informs interested mothers about the process and purpose of donating their breast milk. 

Lactating women, wearing laboratory gowns, face masks and hair caps, collect milk from their breasts by using electronic breast pumps.
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Joey Reyna

Breast milk is collected from donors using manual methods or breast pumps, with assistance from human milk bank staff.

A health worker, wearing a laboratory coat, gloves, face mark and hair cap, checks breast milk stored in a refrigerator at a human milk bank.
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Joey Reyna

Raw breast milk that has been collected is stored in a freezer. Each container is labeled with complete details such as the donor’s name, date and time of collection, and the amount of breast milk collected. 

A health worker, wearing a laboratory gown, gloves, face mask and hair cap, transfers breast milk to a new container under a laminar flow hood.
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Joey Reyna

To prepare breast milk for pasteurization, it is first thawed in a refrigerator overnight. Breast milk from multiple donors is then pooled under a laminar flow hood, a ventilation device that controls the circulation of filtered air to prevent contamination while milk is being transferred to new containers. 

Health workers, wearing laboratory gowns, face masks, gloves and hair caps, transfer breast milk to a pasteurization machine.
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Joey Reyna

Each batch of breast milk is pasteurized at 62.5°C for 30 minutes. Pasteurization kills bacteria, virus and other microorganisms, and extends the shelf life of breast milk. Samples from each batch are sent to the hospital laboratory before and after pasteurization for microbiological testing to ensure safety and quality. Pasteurized milk is then stored in a freezer at -20°C. 

A plastic container containing breast milk inside a cooler with a gel freeze pack
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Joey Reyna

To get breast milk from the milk bank, recipients need to present a doctor’s prescription, fill out required forms, and pay a minimal fee to help sustain milk bank operations. Health workers in the region can refer patients to the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center to get their supply of breast milk.

Frozen pasteurized breast milk is placed in a cooler with ice or gel freeze packs to maintain its temperature while in transit. Once thawed, the milk must be consumed within 24 hours. 

For inquiries and breast milk donations to the EVRMC Human Milk Bank, please contact:

  • Dr. Gemma Ramos, 0917 977 9002
  • Dr. Audrey Santo, 0917 321 4917
  • Ms. Evangeline Varona, 0916 323 6768