Back before there was a breast versus bottle debate, women who could not or did not breastfeed were able to choose a third option: breast milk from another mother. This is known today as milk sharing.
In most traditional cultures, this meant wet-nursing, with family members able to provide this (often literally) life-saving role.
In later periods such as 19th century England, it became the norm for the upper classes to outsource their childrearing and nursing. Cross-culturally, wet-nursing had a wide sense of approval as a beneficial gift to the community and was sometimes associated with interesting taboos.
In Muslim communities, a child that had been wet-nursed could not then marry into that woman’s family, as they would be considered a sibling of the other children who had breastfed from the same mother.
Enter the Modern Wet Nurse
But with the advent of pumps, freezers and milk bags comes a new tradition of milk sharing that does not require wet-nursing in the traditional sense. Women who have an abundance of breast milk are choosing to share with others in need, in both formal and informal ways.
The Human Milk Banking Association of North American (HMBANA) takes donations gladly; women undertake a screening process that includes a phone screening, blood testing, and they must have a minimum of 100 oz. to donate. The milk is then pasteurized and processed before becoming available for infants in need. HMBANA through its member banks have provided 3.2 million ounces of milk in the last year alone from over 5,000 donor moms.
Direct Milk Sharing
Another growing trend is direct milk sharing. Mothers increasingly are going online to offer a surplus of their own milk, or to seek others’ milk for their babies. Facebook groups have sprung up dedicated to connecting mothers who desire to share and receive milk. Organizations like Human Milk 4 Human Babies, started by Canadian mother Emma Kwasnica, support mother-to-mother connection outside of the official milk bank route. You might even find moms willing to share at your local breastfeeding support meeting.
This method is not without its critics, however, and some refer to the 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics which found “Human milk purchased via the Internet exhibited high overall bacterial growth and frequent contamination with pathogenic bacteria, reflecting poor collection, storage, or shipping practices.”
Addressing the difference between milk purchased over the internet, and peer-to-peer milk sharing however, Alison Stuebe, Director of Lactation Service and OB at the University of Western Sydney points out that the methodology employed by the researchers was unlikely to mimic the actual conditions of true informal milk sharing, including the more likely scenario of local pick-up rather than packing and shipping.
The Personal Side of Milk Sharing
My interest in this topic is a personal one. When my youngest daughter was born in May of 2013, I began pumping and freezing first the precious colostrum, and then breast milk, carefully labeling and tucking away the bags in a friend’s deep freezer in preparation for donating to my youngest sister who was waiting to adopt a baby.
In October of 2013 her son joined their family and soon I was researching dry ice, overnight shipping options and Styrofoam packing. Soon I was dropping off a large box to the post office, feeling nervous and elated that I was able to send the most meaningful new baby gift that I would ever have the privilege to give: 300 oz. of my own breast milk. Each plump little bag that I nestled into the container was truly liquid love, some carrying little messages like: “Butterfinger milk!” on the bag I pumped the night of Halloween, or “Love you baby Alex.”
Kerri, Alex’s mother, is a registered nurse, and didn’t hesitate when I broached the subject of milk donation when I was pregnant. “It was a no-brainer for me that babies need breast milk for optimum health. I did not spend a minute worrying about the potential for disease because his milk was either from family members, or good friends of family members.” Kerri was able to give Alex breast milk for seven months, from a total of 8 donors, and is still touched that so many women, most she had never met, were willing to step forward to donate milk. “I loved giving Alex his bottle. It was our special time together and I knew I was providing for him the most biologically appropriate food I could possibly find.”
Be Aware of the Risks
Like all feeding choices, informal milk sharing carries both benefits but also an element of risk. Patty Jacobs, president of Breastfeeding USA, points out that the World Health Organization places donor breast milk above formula on their hierarchy of preferred options for infant feeding. “As an evidenced based organization, we believe a mother should be given accurate information, weighing the pros and cons of casual milk sharing, using banked human milk, or using formula. Mothers faced with the need to supplement must decide for themselves what is best for their particular situation.”
by Krista Cornish Scott, a writer and advocate for birthing women in the spare moments she steals from homeschooling three children and her vocation as a classical musician. For more information about ICAN, please visit www.ican-online.org