A few years back there was a posting on the widely used community site Craigslist that offered a barter of sorts. The posting originated from the East Bay/Berkeley branch of Craigslist and was a call out to lactating mothers looking for housing. Seems this group of radical vegans (or I guess they could have been vegetarians, my memory is not 100% on this detail) had heard enough positive word on the healing and palliative properties of human breast-milk and wanted to offer an exchange of sorts: a free room in their Berkeley home in exchange for enough pumped breast-milk to satisfy a thirsty household of vegan adults who were just curious enough to add the human animal product to their diets. This post was widely circulated around Internet circles (more likely for a laugh than anything) and has long since been removed. However, the idea of sharing breast-milk lives on, not so much for curious vegans looking for a fix of whey and casein (two proteins found in human breast milk), but new mothers (and parents) who are unable to breast feed themselves.
A recent NPR report brought attention to this phenomenon in a report that took a look at how social networking (namely through Facebook) is aiding mothers on the search for breast milk for their hungry infants. According to several reports and studies, breast-milk has been found to be far superior in both nutrition and long-term health benefits for children. Breast-milk is believed to have immunity-boosting properties that formula lacks, and children who are breast-fed seem to have slightly higher IQs than those on formula. A national nutrition survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that American infants who were exclusively breast fed for more than six months had lower risk of pneumonia and ear infections than those breast fed for four to six months. So it is of little mystery as to why these parents are taking to Facebook and Craigslist to share and procure enough breast milk to keep their children healthy and nourished.
However, as the NPR report mentions, the Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics are showing some serious concern over this breast-milk-sharing phenomenon. Their concern is that “informal breast milk sharing” puts infants at risk of HIV, hepatitis B, and other infectious diseases (not to mention bacteria, drugs, or other contaminants). “We cannot recommend the sharing of breast milk over the Internet,” says Lori Feldman-Winter, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Instead, medical professionals are advising parents looking for a breast milk fix for their babies to avoid the community spaces and opt for breast-milk banks, which take donations from nursing mothers who have been tested to make sure they don’t have infectious diseases. But there are a few problems with this option: the first is that it is expensive (about $3.50 per ounce according to NPR), it is not all that easy to obtain, and all milk is pasteurized for the protection of the baby (although many reports say that vital nutrients are lost in the breast-milk once it is pasteurized).
This leaves sharing as a viable and affordable option. But how real are the risks? If the milk donated to the breast milk banks is any indicator, the risk hovers around 3%, which seems minor. However, who really wants to be in that 3% that unwittingly gives their baby bacteria-rich milk? And even though much of this population hardly thinks twice about downing a glass of cow’s milk (milk with far less provenance than milk obtained via Facebook) people, in this country, remain somewhat squeamish about feeding their children human milk from another mother, largely because it is deemed as inappropriate (for now). So is this new trend of sharing (not selling) breast-milk something worth praising and promoting, or is it a flirtation with disaster? Is it a better option than formula feeding your baby? If breast-milk is this important, then what could possibly be next?