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Should Breast-Milk Be Shared?

Should Breast-Milk Be Shared?

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?

Read more: Babies, Family, Health, Parenting at the Crossroads, Pregnancy, Vegan, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

26 comments

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3:43AM PST on Mar 7, 2013

Why not share breast milk? Wet nurses were common not too long ago. If it goes to adults, so long as an infant isn't made to do without, why not?

6:37AM PST on Jan 24, 2013

milk is for the infant, not grown adults....
Breastmilk should only be shared for an infant whose mother can not provide enough or for other health reasons

4:40AM PST on Nov 20, 2012

Of course breast milk should be shared!

Especially colostrum (the milk that is produced around the labour and a few days after) is essential for babies, as it is rich in antibodies and help to develop the baby's digestive system.
I've worked at a dairy farm (not a factory farm!), and there colostrum is considered so important that even though the calf is nursing soon after birth, the farmer milks the cow and bottle-feeds the calf to make sure it gets enough within the first six hours. There is also always a storage of frozen colostrum for those calves that for some reason cannot get it from their mother, as freezing doesn't destroy the milk's properties.

Some women have trouble producing enough breast milk, others have too much of it. My mother was one of the latter, she had to use breast pumps even though she were breast feeding, or it would just leak out. So she had a lot of frozen breast milk, and sold it to the hospital, as many women with too much milk do where I live (Finland).
The hospitals then uses the milk to feed infants whose mother's cannot nurse or do not have enough milk themselves. Though I don't know if the mothers have to pay for the milk or if it's covered by social security.

But pasteurising the milk is madness! Why destroy so much of its good properties?

Once my mother used her excess milk to make buns. People loved them, as breast milk is high in fat and proteins. She only made the mistake of telling them when they asked how she made them t

2:43PM PST on Nov 19, 2012

IF a mom gave birth prematurely...then maybe ok to for donor share with that woman if the donor is healthy...

11:27AM PST on Nov 19, 2012

Yuk. Sounds pretty disgusting to me.
However, I know of a woman that used her excess milk to make yoghurt to feed the entire family.

11:07AM PST on Nov 19, 2012

I should also state that those I personally know that have found someone to share milk outside of a milk bank have found them through midwives or other professionals that know these women and screen them themselves as much as they deem important.

11:03AM PST on Nov 19, 2012

"parents looking for a breast milk fix for their babies"- good God man, breastmilk isn't ice cream or something babies crave. This article has put a bit of a nasty negative spin on milksharing and breastfeeding.

It's the food that is made specifically for infants- and it should be utilized. If women are willing to share their breastmilk for those infants whose mothers can't produce enough, or whatever, in order to avoid upsetting their gut w/ processed formula, then let's make it an affordable option. If at the time like now the only affordable option is to find someone in your community, then that's what women are going to do. It's not 'icky', or a 'fad', or something that should make people squeamish.

That said- I would NOT knowingly sell my milk for adult consumption. Pumping and ensuring s good supply is hard enough to do, why would I want my milk wasted to an adult when an infant would benefit more?

6:08AM PST on Nov 19, 2012

I think it's a marvelous idea!

4:50PM PST on Nov 18, 2012

Shared with what???

1:54PM PST on Nov 18, 2012

I don't know.

I was possibly in a furfor fury when I posted before and came from a topic about cows and milking cows and how mean it is to milk them or goats.

fight with misantropist, your mind gets clouded.

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