The practice of shared breastfeeding or sharing breast milk was fairly common throughout history, but has fallen out of favor in the developed world. Before a safe alternative to breast milk existed, a baby's life might be in danger if the mother was unable to nurse. A growing number of people are interested in sharing their breast milk with others and it's raising some issues.
Take it to the bank
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) is devoted to ensuring that donated breast milk is collected from screened donors and processed safely. Women who are interested in donating breast milk can find their nearest milk bank on the HMBANA website. If there is not a bank nearby, they will usually arrange to have the milk shipped to the nearest bank.
HMBANA issues voluntary safety guidelines for member banks on how to screen donors and safely collect, process, handle, test and store milk. At the milk bank, donations are tested, pasteurized and frozen before being shipped to hospitals or individuals. While these banks are run as non-profits, they do charge for the milk to cover their costs.
Milk sharing: The personal touch
What if someone in your local area was in need of breast milk donations? Many women are bypassing the bank and simply sharing their milk. Some women are comfortable sharing milk within established friendships, while others organize on Facebook pages and donate where they see a need. Many of these women are also breastfeeding their own babies, which makes women more comfortable accepting donations of milk.
When Jamie Cottrell Thomas was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer during her pregnancy, she was told she would need a double mastectomy immediately after her baby was born. She had planned on breastfeeding her newborn, and struggled with this new set of circumstances. She reached out to Jill Krause, writer of the popular blog Baby Rabies, for help finding milk donors. Jamie was a frequent commenter on Baby Rabies, and Jill responded immediately. Her post requesting breast milk donations was read by over 100,000 people and she quickly rallied enough women in Jamie's local area who were willing to donate.
According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, potential risks of using donor breast milk include exposing the baby to infectious diseases and to prescription or other drugs that might be in the breast milk of an unscreened donor. There is also the risk that the breast milk has not been properly stored and handled, and may become contaminated. The FDA recommends that people only use breast milk obtained from a source that screens donors and uses safety precautions in the handling and distribution of milk.
Women have been helping women for years, whether in an underground manner or through organized drives. Educate yourself about sharing breast milk so you can make the right decision for your family.