woman breastfeeding baby

More and more women are sharing their breast milk

If there is one issue that’s guaranteed to get the mum-judgment going, it’s whether babies should be breastfed or bottle fed. Proponents of the breast-is-best approach will sing the praises of naturally produced milk, arguing that it strengthens the immune system, defends against allergies and lowers risk of certain cancers in the mother. Formula-feeders, on the contrary, will argue that it doesn’t matter, that what’s important is that the baby is well-fed and content. But now there is another debate polarising mums, expectant parents and health professionals: whether or not to let your baby drink another woman’s breast milk.

The practice of milk sharing - that is, donating expressed breast milk for other mothers to feed their babies with - is gaining popularity with both grateful parents and their kindly donors. Over the past few years Human Milk for Human Babies (HMHB), the world’s largest informal milk sharing network, which links up donors and recipients via localised Facebook communities, has seen a rapid growth in numbers. At the same time, milk banks - more organised versions of such schemes that generally require donor blood testing - have sprung up all around the world. So what is fueling this growing movement? And are there any issues with it?

Although reliable figures as to the number of women that struggle to breastfeed are hard to come by, doctors say that it is not uncommon to experience difficulties, especially in the first few weeks and months. In fact, in the US, less than half of women are still breastfeeding after six months, and just 27 per cent are still going after a year. In the UK, the drop is even more dramatic, with 34 per cent still breastfeeding at six months and almost all having given up after 12 months. For women affected by this, whether it be because of limited milk supply, pain or illness, or one of a whole host of other reasons, donor milk can be a lifeline to the kind of parenting they want to choose: "Breastfeeding is something that I'm massively passionate about... obtaining donor milk was just the next step", Harriet Tutton, who had trouble breastfeeding her third child, told the BBC.

But, do the benefits of breastfeeding still prevail when it’s not your milk that your baby is drinking? Well, it appears so. For premature babies, donor milk can literally be a lifesaver, providing much-needed nutrients, whereas they may struggle with formula milk. In 2014, Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters, which is located in Virginia, even established their own milk bank in order to help ensure that they had a steady supply of milk to help the youngsters in their care, explaining that: “Breast milk significantly decreases the odds of life-threatening complications and infections in premature infants during the first months of life.” In the first few months of existence, the hospital's milk bank helped over 100 newborn babies.

There are a whole range of reasons that inspire women to donate their milk. Some say they are motivated to do something productive with the excess breast milk they are producing, others say that it gives them a sense of closure and healing after experiencing events such as the loss of their own newborn child. Some, on the other hand, just find the process rewarding, as one donor proved in an emotional Facebook post in March 2018. In the open letter to the baby receiving milk, the donor said that it felt right to give newborns more of a fighting chance, declaring: “So take it. Fight. And grow up to be amazing!”

There is one flaw to all of this, however: quite how unregulated the donor milk industry is. After just a quick search on Facebook, we were able to find multiple women volunteering their milk privately, without going through any kind of screening process. Many gave a quick bit of information about their background and health, as well as a few extra details about their circumstances - “the milk comes from a smoke / pet free home,” wrote one user. Yet, can you really trust someone to tell, or even know, the truth about their own health, however well-intentioned they may be? After all, condoms exist for this very reason.

It seems that the US Food and Drug Administration would say no. As a result of the growing prevalence of milk-sharing, they have now issued official advice warning parents not to source donor milk through the internet: “When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk," they write. A study by published in the British Medical Journal in 2010, backs this idea up. Through blood tests, it found that of 1,091 potential donors who volunteered milk to a number of banks, six were discovered to have syphilis, 17 hepatitis B, three to have hepatitis C, six HTLV and four to have HIV. While these women would have been barred from donating to most milk banks, they are still free to do so privately.

However, even using milk banks is not risk-free. In only a handful of states are milk banks required by law to screen volunteers or forced to follow guidelines relating to safely of handling donor milk, although it must be said that many do so anyway. Ironically, it is these same milk banks that are pushing mothers towards online groups in search of milk. Although they are generally considered the safest option for obtaining “clean” milk, banked milk is often prescription only, with hospitalised newborns prioritised. And that’s before you even get to the hefty price tag that breast milk can come with.

Like most things in parenting, whether it is home births or quirky names, the idea of milk sharing is divisive and controversial. Some people will almost certainly be turned off by the "yuck factor", others will simply be content to nurse their child on formula-feed. But from giving premature babies the best chance of survival to enabling parents to nurture their children in the way they want, when they otherwise may not have the chance, it's hard to deny that donating breast milk has an incredible potential for good. So it's a great shame that, between the associated costs and the shortage of milk in banks turning women towards the internet, it also has the potential to do harm.