History of Milk Banks

Throughout history women have supplied babies with milk when their own mothers were unable to do so. They were called wet-nurses. However after the industrial revolution wet nurses became hard to find so the idea of human milk banking arose. The first milk bank to be established was in Vienna in 1909, followed by the Boston Floating Hospital in the United States in 1910. A set of premature quadruplets were born in London in 1935 and they were successfully fed on donated breast milk. This resulted in the establishment of the first breast milk bank in London called The Queen Charlotte Breast Milk Bank. Within three months, hundreds of babies’ lives had been saved and the milk bank was declared an institution of national importance. However, towards the end of the last century, two factors were responsible for the decline in breast milk banks. These factors were; the aggressive marketing of infant formula and the onset of HIV/AIDS.

Milk Banking in South Africa

Within South Africa, breast milk banking existed informally in hospitals around the country prior to 1980. Mothers who had extra breast milk, expressed and donated it to pre-term babies whose mothers did not have sufficient milk. However, there was no screening of mothers and the milk was used without being pasteurised. With the advent of HIV/AIDS and the fact that the virus was transmitted through breast milk, these breast milk banks stopped operating. The discovery of the Holder method of pasteurisation ensured that breast milk banks could operate safely again. The Holder method was found to destroy HIV/AIDS and other potentially harmful viruses and bacteria, while retaining nutrients and most of the immune properties.

In 2000 Prof. Anna Coutsoudis, from the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, started the iThemba Lethu Breast Milk Bank in Durban. The need for the breast milk bank stemmed from the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This pandemic has resulted in thousands of infants either being abandoned when their mothers discovered they are HIV infected or being orphaned when their mothers die of HIV/AIDS. These babies are cared for in a transition home and fed on donated breast milk while adoptive families are sort. The vision is to provide these children with a meaningful destiny so iThemba Lethu in Zulu means “I have a destiny”.

UNICEF provided the funding to establish this community-based breast milk bank, which was the first of its kind in the world. Prof. Coutsoudis then assisted with the establishment of milk banking in the Western Cape (Milk Matters) in 2001/2 and then breast milk banking in Gauteng (South African Breast Milk Reserve).


As yet there is no legislation governing milk banking in South Africa. With the increasing number of milk banks around the country, it was felt that an association was necessary to provide guidelines for these organisations. Guidelines for donor milk banking were developed in 2008 based on those used by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America and United Kingdom Association of Milk Banks. An inaugural meeting to discuss the formation of HMBASA was held at the Priorities Perinatal Conference in March 2008, and The Human Milk Banking Association of South Africa (HMBASA) was registered as a non-profit organisation in 2009.

Management Committee

  • Prof. Anna Coutsoudis (Chairlady)
  • Penny Reimers (Secretary)
  • Dr Photini Kiepiela (Treasurer)
  • Prof. Miriam Adhikari
  • Prof. Suzanne Delport
  • Dr. Max Kroon
  • Prof. Koleka Mlisana
  • Dr Neil McKerrow
  • Vanessa Booysen
  • Jenny Wright