Breastmilk is often called liquid gold. It is a precious commodity that sustains life and nourishes babies. It isn’t a rare commodity, but if you try to get your hands on some, you might get that impression. Breast milk is not that easy to come by.
In fact, even celebrities with significant financial resources have trouble getting it. Actor Neil Patrick Harris and his partner David Burtka had twin babies (one boy, one girl) via a surrogate in October. His daughter, Harper, has been suffering from intestinal issues and cannot tolerate any of the infant formulas they have tried.
In an article on The Stir, Julie Ryan Evans quotes from Neil Patrick Harris’ recent appearance on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He talks about how logistically complicated it is to get breast milk (noting that if someone close by had breast milk available, it would have to be shipped by plane, pasteurized, and then shipped back) and how expensive it is (“They charge a fortune! It costs more for breast milk than sushi“). In addition to the points made by Harris, most milk banks only provide breast milk for babies who have a prescription from their doctor indicating how many ounces per day are required.
Is this reasonable? The FDA seems to think so. On its website, it “recommends against feeding your baby breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet” and instead recommends that “if, after consultation with a healthcare provider, you decide to feed a baby with human milk from a source other than the baby’s mother, you should only use milk from a source that has screened its milk donors and taken other precautions to ensure the safety of its milk.” The problem with this position is that this approach is out of reach of most regular people. Donor milk can cost between $2 and $4 per ounce, meaning it can cost between $50 and $100 per day to feed a baby.
Both the American and Canadian governments have been digging in their heels and continuing to tell parents that “Breast is Best” and that they should breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months while at the same time doing nothing to help them reach that goal. In the Ottawa Citizen, columnist Kate Heartfield wrote that the government should do more than scolding mothers:
The advice to expectant parents from every health agency I can find is clear: if a mother can’t produce enough milk for her baby or if breastfeeding is contraindicated, the next-best option is treated milk from another healthy mother. Formula is the third-best option.
So why are most Canadian babies drinking at least some formula by the time they reach six months?
One reason is that the second-best option is very difficult to find. There were once more than 20 milk banks in Canada, but they disappeared in the 1980s. Today, there’s only one, in British Columbia, although there are others in the works in Toronto and Quebec. Parents need prescriptions to get milk from the B.C. bank, which shows just how precious a resource we’re talking about here. It’s not as if breast milk is a dangerous narcotic; the only reason to limit it by prescription is to make sure the babies who need it most are at the front of the line.
The unfortunate reality is that many moms do not produce enough milk — whether for physical reasons or due to bad advice that resulted in a loss of milk supply. Plus, there are same sex male couples, like Harris and Burtka, who also want to give their babies the best.
There are some risks to informal breastmilk sharing, but there are also precautions parents can take to minimize them. When comparing those risks to the many unmitigated risks of formula feeding, it is understandable that more parents are trying to get breastmilk for their babies. It is, afterall, what the health authorities suggest. Since it is so difficult and expensive to get donor breast milk, parents are creating their own solutions. On The Stir, Christie Haskell writes:
Eats on Feets, founded by Emma Kwasnica and Shell Walker, is a social network organized specifically to match up moms who have milk to donate with women who need it for their babies. It is 100 percent non-profit, with absolutely no buying/selling of breast milk allowed. Women willing to go out of their way to pump for another mother, which is no small feat and takes a lot of work, aren’t statistically likely to be engaging in dangerous activities to being with, especially when there is no profit to be made. Kwasnica notes it wouldn’t be unrealistic to merely ask a potential donor to go be tested at a clinic (health departments screen for STDs free of charge) and have the results available for you to see.
If health authorities are for breast milk but against informal milk sharing, why are they so reluctant to put more resources towards the development of a robust breast milk donation system? Are they not willing to put their money where their mouth is? Or are they catering to the interests of the infant formula industry? If following the recommendations of health authorities is almost out of reach for even the most privilieged in our society (rich celebrities), then something obviously has to change.
Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.
Photo credit: Daquella Manera on flickr