Goshen News, Goshen, IN

November 4, 2012

WHOLE FAMILY: Sharing human milk can be healthy and safe


— You’d really have to work hard — and probably cheat — to argue against the fact that human milk is, most times, what’s best for human babies.

If science didn’t prove it — but science certainly does — I’d believe it true simply on its merit of logic: Just like calves grow best on cows’ milk and kittens on cats’, so do human babies grow best on human milk.

But even with this understanding — that breast milk is what’s best for babies — some people are grossed out by breast milk or, more likely, by breastfeeding. I understand why: For one, we’re a weird, backward culture that worships at the throne of alleged “advances.” We think, “Can’t they make something better in a laboratory?” The answer is no, by the way: They — whomever “they” are — cannot.

For two, we’re hypocrites who have relegated a woman’s breast — hijacked it, really — to the genre of sex. We think, “That mother should not nurse her baby in public. How offensive!” while we gleefully patronize chain restaurants that feature waitresses whose “hooters” sell the menu. Indiana enjoys nine of these restaurants.

In mentioning our ignorant double standard, I realize I digress. But if breast milk or breastfeeding grosses you out, you’d better put the paper down. I’m taking it a step further and writing about breast milk sharing.

LAST WEEK I told a simple but sweet story about a mother who received donated breast milk for her 7-month-old son after a car accident claimed the life of her husband, the baby’s father. That was in 1992, and the women whose story it was said they didn’t think twice about it. One mom needed milk; one mom had extra, so she shared.

Though it takes various forms — everything from hiring or serving as an actual wet nurse to donating to or receiving from a highly regulated milk bank, the practice of breast-milk sharing is as old as breast milk itself.

For either donating or receiving breast milk, mothers have a few options:

• There are milk banks sanctioned by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (https://www.hmbana.org/). Indiana has one, the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank (http://www.immb.org/), which opened in 2005. These banks work hard to screen donors and to get milk to babies in need, sick or premature babies being the priority. Health-care providers are most likely to work through banks like the IMMB, where donors are carefully selected and milk is pasteurized and handled based on advice from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. Consider these “official” milk banks, though human breast milk is not — yet — a controlled substance and is not especially regulated.

• Because going through an “official” milk bank can be cost-, time- or otherwise prohibitive, many grass-roots breast milk concierge-type services exist. Some serve simply as personal ads of sorts, where parents looking for and parents wanting breast milk can find each other. One such organization is Eats on Feets, an online group that puts buyers and sellers — yes, often money is exchanged in breast-milk transactions — together. See http://www.eatsonfeets.org/#info. Indiana has an Eats on Feets chapter on Facebook where one can find pleas like, “We are in urgent need of BM [breast milk], as my 2-month-old is now refusing his supplemental formula!” Eats on Feets follows its four pillars of safe milk sharing: informed choice, donor screening, safe handling and home pasteurization.

• Plenty of families simply share informally, finding each other by word of mouth usually. I’ve seen this myself from time to time. Someone has supply issues; someone else is a great lactator. One gives to the other, and at least four people — two moms, two babies — are happy.

But is human milk sharing safe? What if the baby gets sick?

Hang on. I’ll answer in a minute. (I’m dizzy and my eyes hurt.) You see, when you’re a home birther, you hear, “What if something goes wrong?” and roll your eyes. If you’re a homeschooler, you hear “What about socialization?” and roll your eyes. If you’re a co-sleeper, you hear “How will you ever get them out of your bed?” and roll your eyes.

Here’s the answer: Nothing, NO-THING, in this world is 100 percent safe. Human milk sharing included.

But let’s take a look:

I haven’t heard anything in the news lately about human milk contamination. Have you? I do remember a recall of infant formula, however, about a year ago after a baby died from bacteria in powdered Enfamil. (The baby-dies-from-breast-milk deaths in the news are almost exclusively from drugs in a baby’s own mother’s milk.) Contaminated steroid shots? Sure. Contaminated donor breast milk? Not very often.

It’s true, though. There are, certainly, safety concerns. There’s whatever might be in the donor milk itself. There’s risk of it not being handled correctly and bacteria growing. There’s the chance of a hypersensitivity reaction from baby, no doubt. But most people who are mindful enough to either receive or donate breast milk are going to take the time to be cautious and considerate.

Milk banks pasteurize their donations as an additional layer of caution, and parents can always perform pasteurization at home of milk they receive independently.

In short: It’s usually safe if done safely, and there’s plenty of information about how to share safely.

One member of our family of six is a great-niece, a foster daughter who has lived with us since she was 2 months old. Since I was lactating enough for a 6-month-old baby then, I offered my foster daughter my breast as well. For various reasons, mostly her oral-motor deficits, she was unable to nurse long or effectively. The lactation consultant whose advice I sought told me, “Even one (breast-milk) feeding is better than none. You’re doing a good thing for her.”

Glad I shared then, and I encourage you to read up and share now.

Goshen News columnist Stephanie Price is a wife, mother, teacher, childbirth educator, midwife’s assistant and nursing student from Elkhart. Contact her at wholefamily@goshennews.com, 269-641-7249 or on Facebook at the page “Whole Family Column by Steph Price.”