Friday, November 29, 2013

Is milk sharing like playing Russian Roulette?

Zari admiring some donor milk I'd just pumped

I was listening to an NPR report a few days ago on how the booming demand for donated breastmilk has raised safety issues. I'm always happy to hear topics such as milk banks and informal milk sharing on a national stage. However, the reporting made me all jumpy. I almost talked back to the radio.

Quick synopsis: more women want to breastfeed, and those who can't are turning to milk banks and informal milk sharing. Milk banks are swamped by high demand and can only give it to babies who need it the most. So many mothers have turned to milk donors/sellers. But milk sharing is dangerous! Don't forget, formula isn't that bad.

I've donated milk to many families after Zari and Ivy were born. It's not that hard to ensure that donor milk is safe. If the mom has tested negative for certain communicable diseases (HIV, syphilus, hepatitis, etc.) and follows commonsense precautions like freezing the milk right away, then it's not "playing Russian roulette with your child's life," as Kim Updegrove, president of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, suggested.

To give Updegrove some credit, she was specifically referring to breast milk sold online through anonymous sellers. I'd be wary of buying milk online, too. I value the person-to-person contact involved in milk sharing.

I also take issue with the assertion that every ounce of milk donated informally or sold online is one less ounce to a milk bank. I don't have time or desire to drive my milk to the nearest bank, which is a 2 hour drive roundtrip. And while I think that milk banks are fantastic, the cost of milk is over $4/oz, sometimes much more. That's over $100/day for an average baby! I love that I can help other mothers out for free.

What bothered me the most, though, was how the report pushed formula at the very end:

In the meantime, even nursing proponents like Updegrove and Tucker maintain that when nursing fails emphasize that formula remains a good and safe choice for full-term, healthy babies. They say donor breast milk should be preserved for the babies who need it most: babies who are premature, allergic, or have digestive problems.

"Formula sometimes doesn't have to be the four-letter word," Tucker says. "Sometimes it's necessary and that's OK. And sometimes we need to let moms know that's OK, you're still doing the best you can do."

Informal milk sharing isn't a zero sum game. Milk is a free-flowing resource, and milk sharing can be very safe. Women who seek donor milk feel strongly that formula is not as "good and safe" as it's made out to be--that's why they're looking for alternatives to formula in the first place!

If you're looking to donate or receive donor breast milk, you can try:


  1. Like you I'm glad to see it being talked about, but dislike the tone.

    I was very thankful for donor milk when I needed it and so happy to be able to donate my milk to others when I had more than enough. I don't qualify to donate to a milk bank because I take medication to control depression, anxiety and OCD, but I have had no problem finding moms who feel my milk is perfectly acceptable.

  2. Great post, Rixa. Did you see the Breastfeeding Medicine response to that study? There were so many reasons why that study got the results that it got. It's unfortunate that mainstream media doesn't have the ability to think critically about it.

  3. I'm a perinatal nurse at a hospital which has a milk bank. One thing to consider is that the milk bank may pay for shipping and supplies (dry ice etc.), as my facility does. I wouldn't want to drive either, but would consider donating if I they'd make it easy for me to ship. There are certain restrictions - for example, they ask you not to donate if your baby is over a year, simply because the nutrients needed for a preemie or infant at the hospital are different than those a toddler needs. But it is a decent proposition overall, IMO. While patients are in-house, the milk is available to them for free. Once they are discharged, though, like you is very pricey. Still, I like the idea that babies can get breastmilk for supplementation, especially preemies, for whom breastmilk can literally be the difference between life and death. (Don't get me wrong, I like it for term babies as well!)

    As a breastfeeder and as a mother, I would not buy online from an anonymous donor but would have zero problem either donating to someone I know or having them donate to my kids (who are both weaned and it's a moot point).

    Society in general (and some in healthcare!) has a long way to go in educating people about breastmilk. It's the normal thing for babies to eat, not some gross substance to be feared.

  4. I'm currently pumping for an adopted baby. It's informal, but we know each other and they trust me to be honest about my non-drug use. I think it's great. I love that I can help someone out so easily.


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