A New Lesson in Sharing: Breast Milk for Everyone

Is it safe to share breast milk?
Some parents will go to great lengths to ensure their babies receive breast milk.

I know that it was meant to be a heartwarming story: Salma Hayek in Sierra Leone on a UNICEF mission in 2009 picked up another woman’s crying baby and breastfed her.

“It’s about women sticking together and we really need to help the children in any way we can,” Salma said of playing wet nurse for the day.

While I recognized her humanity, the act of seeing one woman nursing another’s child made me gag. Not cry. Gag. It was just a little too, well, personal. There’s something sacred about bodily fluids, and I feel strongly they shouldn’t be shared outside of the family. I don’t mind changing my kid’s diapers, but I really want nothing to do with someone else’s kid’s waste, nor do I think someone else’s kid should get my breast milk.

However, ABC News recently reported that sharing breast milk is more common than I ever knew (in fact, I had no idea anyone did it beyond in a few Shakespeare plays, and Salma Hayek). So common, in fact, the FDA is looking at it a little more closely, particularly since breast milk banks are popping up with increased frequency — particularly online — and there is no federal regulation governing how human milk is donated and distributed. And last week the FDA warned that there are risks of contamination and spreading illness by feeding a baby breast milk from a source other than its mother.

When my daughter was born I tried to breast feed, but I didn’t have a ton of milk (or patience), so I mostly pumped and supplemented when necessary with formula. Had another woman’s breast milk been available to me — either that of someone I knew or a stranger — I’m confident it wouldn’t have made a difference in my feeding routine.

My local supermarket throws away returned meat and dairy products because they can’t guarantee a customer has properly refrigerated the items once they left the store. Why is donated breast milk any different? I know I was often guilty of taking a bottle of breast milk out of the fridge for a feeding, only to have my daughter fall asleep. An hour or two later, I’d remember and toss it back in. Not ideal (and I can hear the “tsk tsk” of my pediatrician now), but she lived (and can tell her therapist all about it when she learns to speak in full sentences).

However, that was my choice with my kid. Who’s to say what you’re getting at the milk ATM also wasn’t left sitting out? Or parked in someone’s freezer for a few years? The benefits of breast milk are indisputable — it provides antibodies against pathogens and builds immunity against a range of illnesses. But do the risks of sharing it outweigh the benefits? And are there any moral implications on either side?

Would you feed your baby another woman’s breast milk?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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