I was inspired to write about milk-sharing when I read this article by Amber McCann, IBCLC.
Like Amber, I am an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. I am also a La Leche League Leader. La Leche League’s position on milk-sharing discourages leaders from providing moms with information about informal milk-sharing unless the mother specifically requests such information. If mothers ask a LLL Leader how to obtain human milk supplements for their babies, they must be directed to milk banks, even though the cost of purchasing human milk from a milk bank is prohibitive. In most cases, there is not enough milk available for the ill or preterm babies who need it, let alone any excess available for purchase for healthy babies. This is simply not a viable option for most families.
Avoiding the topic of informal milk-sharing does not take into account the changing social environment of the moms we serve. Through social media and the internet, mothers are more informed than ever about the risks of artificial feeding and about what their babies are missing if they do not breastfeed. Over the last few years, I have observed that informal milk-sharing has rapidly become commonplace. I am witness to many instances of mothers offering their milk to other mothers who need or want supplemental milk. Mothers are sharing their milk whether or not any organization believes it is safe.
While there are risks involved with informally sharing breastmilk due to the potential to spread illness or to expose infants to drugs or chemicals, those risks can be mitigated. It seems disingenuous to be concerned about contamination of breastmilk, when it is well documented that artificial feeding carries significant risks for babies and that formula is often found to be contaminated with chemicals and pathogens.
One risk of informal milk-sharing that I have not seen addressed is that accepting donations of milk from another mother, may put a mother’s own milk supply at risk. Often a mother believes she does not have enough milk or that there is something inadequate about her milk and believes she needs to supplement. If it is simple to get milk from another mother, and she doesn’t have access to information about all the risks and benefits of supplementation, she may not explore the reasons for her own supply issues or discover there is no problem with her milk supply. She may supplement unecessarily and unintentionally reduce the amount of her own milk that is available to her baby. If providing information about informal milk-sharing is discouraged, and focus is placed on the risk of possible contamination, the more significant risk to a mother’s milk supply is potentially overlooked.
Research into mother and infant sleep practices by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, P.h.D., IBCLC, RLC, has shown that dictating to mothers what they should and shouldn’t do, doesn’t work. Telling mothers that they shouldn’t sleep with their babies in adult beds, only results in mothers falling asleep with their babies in even less safe environments, or ignoring the advice while being deprived of the information needed to make bed-sharing safer. Just as many breastfeeding advocates support mothers in bed-sharing with their babies, due to the belief that bed-sharing benefits breastfeeding, and its practice can be made safer, we can also support human milk sharing by providing moms with the information they need to make informal milk-sharing safer. I believe it is time for child health advocates to stop telling moms what to do and instead, provide all the information that moms need in order to make their own informed choices about milk-sharing.
While it is not possible to make any infant feeding option risk-free, mothers can be provided with the information they need to evaluate and minimize the risks and make their own informed decisions. The World Health Organization offers a heirarchy for infant feeding if a baby cannot be breastfed by his or her mother, “..expressed breast milk from an infant’s own mother, breast milk from a healthy wet-nurse or a human-milk bank, or a breastmilk substitute…” in that order. It is up to infant health advocates to help mothers to be informed of the risks and benefits of each option, so they may choose for their own babies.
Laura Spitzfaden, LLLL, IBCLC
In March 2011, the LLLI Board of Directors adopted the following policy regarding the donation of human milk: http://www.llli.org/release/milksharing.html
Mother-Infant Sleep Locations and Nighttime Feeding: U.S. Data from the Survey of Mothers’ Sleep and Fatigue-Kathleen Kendall-Tackett Ph.D., IBCLC, RLC et.al.
Updated to add some links to peer-to-peer milk sharing research papers: