Human milk sharing in the national spotlight due to the return to breastfeeding as the norm for infant feeding in the U.S. News stories about tainted milk sold online have focused attention on the dangers of milk sharing.
Human milk sharing has surely existed for much longer than we know, and at least for centuries. My grandmother once told me that, after the birth of her first child in 1925, her doctor asked her if she would feed a stranger’s baby in the hospital. The baby was early and his mother’s milk was not in. My grandmother breastfed him for three days and he survived. This practice is called cross-feeding and is common in many cultures between friends and family members.
One thing is for certain. When mothers and babies need access to human milk, it should be safe and affordable. A recent survey done by University of Central Florida and published in the Journal of Breastfeeding Medicine examined “peer” breastmilk sharing. The survey included 392 mostly white and college-educated parents. About 27% of recipients had received milk from a stranger, but 97% of donors said they had donated to a stranger at one time. They found that most milk was not sold or shipped. While many said they used the Internet for communication, visiting private pages and peer milk sharing sites, the majority of milk exchanges were made in person and between family members, friends and acquaintances.
Peer milk sharing sites such as Human Milk for Human Babies and Eats on Feet provide no cost milk sharing and cross-feeding. Their websites contain information and resources that promote informed breastmilk sharing.
Milk banks sell pasteurized breastmilk, which is considered the safest shared milk. Pasteurization destroys disease causing germs as well as some beneficial properties of milk. Eighteen not-for-profit milk banks that are members of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America provide donor milk to all 50 states and 3 Canadian provinces. Their unpaid donors are carefully health screened, and milk is sold to hospitals and to individuals. A new for-profit milk bank in California has come under fire for paying mothers for their milk. Concerns include whether this practice will impact the quality and safety of the milk, and whether mothers will sell milk they need to feed their own babies. Advocates say mothers deserve to be compensated. The two barriers an individual may face to obtaining banked donor milk are availability and cost, which is at least $3.00-$ 5.00 per ounce.
Providing human milk for human babies gives the promise of a lifetime of optimal health. Milk sharing is one way some mothers choose to feed their babies, and risks and benefits must be carefully weighed. Some say human milk sharing is here to stay. I would argue it never went away.