Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.
Most mothers hope to breastfeed their babies, but just as with most things in parenthood, it doesn’t always go according to plan. Some moms struggle with low milk supply, babies who never latch, or babies with medical issues that make it difficult to nurse. Other moms have their own medical issues that prohibit breastfeeding. And though some adoptive mothers are able to induce lactation (yes, really!), most wind up needing to supplement their babies.
Of course, some moms are fine with supplementing fully with formula — and no mother should be shamed for that choice. But others feel strongly about providing breast milk for their babies, even if they can’t provide it themselves.
The fact is, all major health organizations recommend breastfeeding as the No. 1 choice for feeding your baby, and there are newborns out there who are allergic or sensitive to formula, and legitimately need breast milk to stay healthy. The struggle that results places many parents in a tough spot.
“My husband and I were determined to give our baby breast milk,” says Allegra, a Long Island, New York mother whose first child was never able to successfully latch. “I have an autoimmune gut disease and my husband has eczema.”
The mom of two shares that although she was able to pump her own milk for a few months, this plan was unsustainable. Still, she was determined to provide as much breast milk as possible for her baby.
So what are the options for mothers like Allegra? For some, there are human milk banks, which receive donated breast milk, and then pasteurize and store the milk for safe usage. There’s just one problem: These milk banks are in short supply, and most of the milk is reserved for premature and medically fragile babies, leaving not much else to go around.
“Much of the milk from these banks goes to ill or premature babies and thus their screening process for donors is fairly stringent,” explains the Breastfeeding USA website, a non-profit breastfeeding peer-to-peer support organization. “Mothers seeking milk for full-term, healthy babies may be unable to obtain milk from HMBANA banks [Human Milk Banking Association of America] or to afford the cost. It is a difficult situation.”
It’s a difficult situation indeed, and many mothers find themselves stuck between that same rock and hard place — desperately wanting to provide breast milk for their babies, but not having any viable way to do so.
It’s for this reason that more and more mothers are turning to informal milk sharing arrangements. These include some instances of wet nursing (usually between close friends or family members), but the majority of mothers provide breast milk for their babies via pumped milk that they receive from a donor.
In fact, this is how Allegra ended up feeding her first daughter. Through informal milk sharing with friends and family members — along with arrangements with donors she found online — she was able to provide enough breast milk for her baby for 10 months.
“It is quite a massive feat to procure enough breast milk to feed a baby exclusively,” Allegra shares. “But we did it. My dear friend had a baby a month before me, and quite literally would fill an 8 oz. Medela bottle one each side, each session. She gave me likely thousands of ounces over the 10 months time.”
But even that generous donation wasn’t enough — and eventually, Allegra had to turn to online forums to find milk donors for her baby.
It turns out, she’s far from alone. According to a study published in Breastfeeding Medicine, the majority of women who receive donated breast milk connect with their donors through online websites that provide forums for donors and recipients to make arrangements for the swap. Some of the most common breast milk sharing sites include Human Milk for Human Babies and Eats on Feets, though there are easily dozens more out there.
Most importantly, the study found that the majority of exchanges happen in person (not anonymously) and without any exchange of money. This is an important distinction, because the majority of mothers who receive informal milk donation actually end up getting to know their donors well. And because there’s no money involved in the transaction, these mothers feel assured that the milk was donated with good intentions.
Of course, this practice is not without risk. It should be noted that the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) doesn’t recommend arrangements such as these. Although the AAP recognizes the value of providing donated milk to babies who can’t breastfeed, it recommends that mothers only provide pasteurized milk from a milk bank.
“The use of pasteurized donor milk is safe when appropriate measures are used to screen donors and collect, store, and pasteurize the milk and then distribute it through established human milk banks,” explains the AAP website. “The use of non-pasteurized donor milk and other forms of direct, Internet-based, or informal human milk sharing does not involve this level of safety and is not recommended.”
Other medical organizations have different recommendations. For example, the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine (ABM) takes a more “common sense” approach to the issue of milk sharing. Although ABM recommends using medically screened milk whenever possible, the organization also recommend that mothers make informed choices about milk sharing, by weighing the pros and cons — and doing so under the guidance of a pediatrician.
“Providers should help mothers and families make informed choices about the risks and benefits of informal breast milk sharing,” the ABM wrote in a 2017 statement. “Physicians and other healthcare providers can advise recipients on medical screening of donors for illnesses and medications that are contraindicated. As donors need screening, we discourage the use of any milk from an anonymous donor.”
Many mothers like Allegra decide to go ahead with milk donation using this “common sense” approach, making sure they get to know their donors in person (even if they initially found them online), and asking donors to provide medical records, or explain in detail their medical and dietary choices. Oftentimes, this is done with the recommendation of a mother’s pediatrician — and under their guidance.
Allegra backs this up, noting that she “had the blessing and encouragement” of her own pediatrician before moving forward with the arrangement.
Another mother (who chose to remain anonymous for this article), tells Babble that she went to great lengths to ensure the donated milk she gave her three adopted children was safe. Like Allegra, the new mom received breast milk via informal milk-sharing arrangements, many of which she found through connections in her community.
“I felt that if a mama would give her own child her milk, the chances that it had something bad in it are slim,” she explains. “And, all of the mamas who donated [gave birth] in the hospital, so [they] were already screened for big diseases.”
Diana Cassar-Uhl, a lactation consultant (IBCLC), MPH, and PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park, recently conducted a study that digs deeper into the informal milk sharing practices among mothers. The study, which will be published next month in the journal Maternal & Child Nutrition, found that milk sharing is actually more common than many might think, especially among mothers with low milk supply.
Cassar-Uhl tells Babble that most mothers she studied developed a highly trusting relationship with their donors, which increased their comfort levels with the arrangement.
“It seems, both from my experience working with families with low milk supply and from my research, that finding milk donors, developing a trusting, two-way relationship with them, and maximizing the amount of human breast milk fed takes a huge commitment — even more than directly breastfeeding does,” says Cassar-Uhl. “Families who choose this option aren’t making the decision lightly, because carrying out the decision to use someone else’s milk isn’t convenient.”
That’s for sure — securing breast milk from trusted sources takes a whole lot of effort and dedication, and every mother interviewed for this article echoed those sentiments pretty loudly. It’s been said that a concerned mother does better research than the F.B.I., and it seems that mothers who procure donor milk for their babies fall right into this category.
For many of these moms, there was another unexpected, yet surprising benefit to the experience, too: the sense of community and friendship these milk-sharing exchanges offered.
Michelle Myers, a mom of two from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, describes her year-long journey of milk sharing when her first daughter was a baby, saying:
“There were so many donors after that I couldn’t begin to name them. Most of them could give 20 to 40 oz. at a time, but over a 100 oz. was a coveted rare find. Some of the ladies offered repeat donations, but most didn’t. I befriended several of them on Facebook. I was invited to and attended birthday parties and play dates. All of this was very moving to me.”
Myers received donated breast milk for a full year, which is a milestone she wholeheartedly celebrates. She even started her own Facebook group to connect mothers with donors in her community.
“It’s been three years now and membership is over 1,200,” Myers tells Babble. “I’m pregnant now with my second. I’m hoping I don’t have the same issues, but if I do, I know Triangle Milk Share will be my go-to source to find donors.”
It truly takes a village to raise a child, and while it might sometimes seem like that village doesn’t exist nowadays, these mothers’ stories prove that the village is indeed alive and well. And although informal milk sharing remains a controversial, and sometimes stigmatized topic, many mothers are finding ways to do it that they feel work for them — with the hope of educating others about the benefits they’ve found, as well.
“Milk sharing, wet nurses … these are topics that have bonded and brought our society to where we are today,” says Allegra. “I have always aimed to educate [others] on the facts about milk sharing online. We have definitely gotten our fair share of comments — many rude, many inquisitive. [But] I take a deep breath and aim to educate.”