OBJECTIVE: To describe the characteristics of donation behavior and identify reasons, beliefs and feelings relative to this practice, based on the reports of donor women. Personal and social-environmental aspects, which seem to affect donation behavior in donors and former donors, were also investigated. METHODS: An exploratory, descriptive and cross-sectional study was carried out with women donors at two breast-milk banks within the public health system of the Brazilian Federal District. Data was collected from July to September 2005. The participants were 36 women, aged 14 to 33 years (average=24.78; SD=5.22), with different levels of schooling, 58.3% of which were first-time mothers. Data gathering was based on interviews carried out during home visits. In addition to descriptive statistical analyses of quantitative data, a qualitative data categorical analysis was also performed. RESULTS: The most frequently reported reasons for donating breast milk were altruism and excess milk production. The most frequent time interval for donation was 13 days after delivery. Contact by phone with the milk bank was the most common means of communication used by the majority of participants (n=22) to obtain information that enabled the donating process. CONCLUSIONS: Psychosocial aspects identified and the experience of donors can contribute to the empowerment of the formal and informal social donation-support network, in addition to serving as a driver for the implementation of technical and policy strategies in promoting future donation practices.