Sharing breast milk is nothing new. The Ancient Romans used Greek wet nurses, in the hope that their children would absorb their language through their milk. In the 17th century, doctors warned that breastfeeding would ruin a woman’s figure, while sex would spoil her breast milk. Upper-class moms also used wet nurses, as they hoped to fall pregnant again immediately, believing that having many kids might improve their chances of raising a few to adulthood.
The practice of wet nursing or expressing milk for friends’ babies is still fairly common today, even though the topic is somewhat controversial. A mom from Pennsylvania in the US recently posted a photo of herself on a parenting Facebook group breastfeeding her own son and her friend’s son simultaneously. The image went viral eliciting both negative feedback and support from other moms.
The internet, however, has changed the face of breast milk sharing. Nowadays, mothers who ‘know’ each other virtually can request or offer expressed breast milk via social media. Is this safe? In a nutshell: it’s complicated and there are no clear-cut answers.
Newly published research has shown that half of breastfeeding mothers in Britain would consider sharing their milk with other parents online. Parenting site Netmums found that one in 50 breastfeeding mothers already use free milk-sharing websites to connect with parents who cannot breastfeed. One in 25 lactating mothers surveyed said they have breastfed a baby for a friend or family member.
While many mothers supported the idea of free peer-to-peer milk-sharing sites, there were concerns about the growing trend for selling breast milk online.
Breast milk is ‘liquid gold’, but think twice before buying it. Researchers from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in the US found that three quarters of breast milk samples bought online contained potentially harmful bacteria due to unsafe collection, storage or shipping.
Dr Jennifer Naudé, a lactation consultant in private practice, says informal milk sharing is certainly an option if a mom can’t fully meet her baby’s needs. The risks and benefits should be weighed up to make a truly informed decision. “Breast milk is a living fluid, packed with nutritional and immunological properties. It’s human milk that’s made for human babies, so digestion is better. In emergencies such as natural disasters or premature birth, breast milk can make the difference between life and death,” she explains. “Choosing informally donated breast milk means accepting full responsibility,” she adds.
Tips for safe milk sharing
The US-based non-profit organisation Eats on Feets recommends the following safeguards:
- Informed choice: Know your options and understand the risks and benefits.
- Donor screening: The donor should be honest about potential risk factors such as medical conditions, drug use, smoking and alcohol consumption. Ideally, she should be screened for viruses transmitted via breast milk.
- Safe handling: The donor should keep her hands, skin and equipment clean. Proper shipping and storage methods are essential.
- Home pasteurisation: Donated milk can be flash heated (unless the parents make an informed decision to use unpasteurised milk).
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