Sharing breast milk is becoming increasingly popular – here's why

Sharing breast milk is becoming increasingly popular – here's why

We all know about the debate surrounding breastfeeding and bottle-feeding - but now, there's a conversation to be had on sharing breast milk.

Proponents of the breast-is-best approach will sing the praises of naturally produced milk. They argue that it strengthens the immune system, defends against allergies, and lowers the risk of certain cancers in the mother. Formula-feeders, on the contrary, say that it doesn’t matter. And that what’s important is that the baby is well-fed and content.

But now there's another debate polarising mums and health professionals. Whether or not to let your baby drink another woman’s breast milk.

sharing breast milk Credit: Pexels

What does sharing breast milk entail?

Milk sharing involves donating expressed breast milk for other mothers to feed their babies with. And it's gaining popularity with both grateful parents and their kindly donors.

READ MORE: Are home births safe? The pros and cons explained by mums

Over the past few years, Human Milk for Human Babies (HMHB), the world’s largest informal milk sharing network has seen rapid growth in numbers. The organisation links up donors and recipients via localised Facebook communities. And, 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?

Some women struggle to breastfeed

Reliable figures as to the number of women that struggle to breastfeed are hard to come by. However, doctors say that it is not uncommon to experience difficulties.

READ MORE: 8 things to do with placenta after giving birth 

In fact, in the US, less than half of women are still breastfeeding after six months, and just 27% are still going after a year. In the UK, the drop is even more dramatic. At six months, 34% are still breastfeeding, and almost all have stopped after 12 months.

For women affected by this, whether it be because of limited milk supply, pain or illness, donor milk can be a lifeline to the kind of parenting they want to choose.

Are the benefits of sharing breast milk the same?

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, where they may struggle with formula milk.

In 2014, Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters, which is located in Virginia, US, 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. In the first few months of existence, the hospital's milk bank helped over 100 newborn babies.

As they explained:

"Breast milk significantly decreases the odds of life-threatening complications and infections in premature infants during the first months of life.”

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.

The milk sharing industry is not regulated

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.

READ MORE: 13 celebrities who don't have children explain their reasons 

Yet, can you really trust someone to tell, or even know, the truth about their own health?

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.

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.

Using milk banks has its risks

However, 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. It's the safest option, but it tends to be prescription only. And that’s before you even get to the hefty price tag that breast milk can come with.