When my daughter began struggling with weight gain around four months old, it never crossed my mind that accepting donor breast milk could be a bad idea. My foray into breastfeeding started off strong, but the return to work proved stifling to my supply, so I started looking into different options for supplementing what I was feeding her.
A friend pointed me to Human Milk 4 Human Babies, an altruistic milk sharing co-op. But naturally, as soon as I grew accustomed to picking up bags of frozen milk from donors on a regular basis, the practice of sharing milk started getting a lot of bad press.
First, a study posted by the journal Pediatrics revealed that roughly 10 percent of breast milk sold online was diluted with cow’s milk.
Then, an article published by Newsweek revealed that corporations supplying breast milk to hospitals, at an average of $5.90 an ounce, were using incentive programs to increase milk bank contributions. Under the guise of encouraging black mothers, who have been found to breastfeed at lower rates, to breastfeed their own children, Medolac began offering $1 per ounce of excess milk to black mothers in Detroit.
Shortly after this incentive program was released, they faced harsh criticism and were forced to choose a different approach. The roar of negative feedback came from all sides. Some argued impoverished mothers would choose formula provided by the government for their babies, selling all of their breast milk as a means of taking care of other expenses. Others pointed out how the incentive mirrored past exploitation when enslaved mothers were used as wet nurses at the detriment of their own children.
All of this attention on shared milk brought up some good questions. What was the deal with the donor milk I’d been feeding my daughter for the past six months?
Had I been careless by supplementing with another mother’s milk?
I read more on the subject, and quickly came to an important realization: even though all of the articles mentioned altruistic milk sharing programs, such as Human Milk 4 Human Babies, no one was actually testing donated milk. The samples for the study published in Pediatrics were not obtained through donation, they were bought online.
When I spoke with Emma Kwasnica, the founder of Human Milk 4 Human Babies, the milk sharing Facebook community I used to find a donor, she did not hesitate in expressing her frustration with these studies.
“The fundamental setup of this study goes against what Human Milk 4 Human Babies stands for,” she said, “it was exactly opposite of the altruistic, peer-to-peer sharing that takes place.”
She went on to explain the model for altruistic milk sharing programs. HM4HB helps connect donors with moms in need of breast milk through local Facebook pages, and mothers are strongly encouraged to get to know their donor and talk about the details of the donor’s life and health. In fact, 96 percent of mothers receiving donor milk drive to meet with their donor, often going into their home to pick up the milk, according to Professor Aunchalee Palmquist of Elon University. Additionally, it’s important to note that donors are asked to never seek compensation for their breast milk.
Compared to the studies mentioned in Newsweek and Pediatrics where researchers acquired milk anonymously, purchased online from for-profit milk banks, this felt incredibly safe.
And, in my experience, it was.
I went through the process exactly as Kwasnica described it. I posted my need for milk on the local HM4HB page, and quickly heard from a mama just a few miles from me. We met up, and discussed her health practices. I also received additional donations from a friend and a coworker on more than one occasion. The generosity of these women is the reason my daughter caught back up on the growth chart. I am so incredibly grateful for their help.
I understand that many people may believe I took an unnecessary risk by feeding my daughter another mother’s milk, but that is not how I see it. Yes, I know formula is a fine option, as I was made aware by a less-than-kind internet troll after sharing about my donor milk experience online. Formula may be fine, but I also believe breast milk is the better option. In fact, we used formula between donations and my daughter became constipated and gassy.
Here is the thing — ultimately, the choice is mine. As my child’s mother, I am more than capable of making an educated decision concerning how I feed her. Put in the same situation, you better believe I would do it again.More On