Should you share breast milk?

Should you share breast milk?

“Thou wast the prettiest babe that e’er I nursed,” Angelica tells her charge in Romeo and Juliet, reminding us that Juliet’s nurse, was, in fact, her wet nurse. This practice, in which a woman shares her breast milk with another woman’s baby, has been going on for thousands of years.

And a recent study presented to the Pediatric Academic Societies reports it’s on the rise again.

Of course, today’s milk sharing is less about a woman physically nursing another mother’s newborn than it is about expressing breast milk into a container and sharing it that way.

The benefits of human milk for newborn children have long been recognized in terms of nutrition, mother-baby bonding, viral/bacterial immunity and the prevention of illnesses like celiac disease, inflammatory bowel syndrome, asthma and childhood cancers. But it’s not always possible for moms who face breastfeeding challenges or low milk supply due to illness or medications. And in the cases of adoption or surrogacy, breastfeeding is even less of an option.

All of the above, coupled with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation that infants should be fed breast milk exclusively for their first 6 months, may explain why today’s mothers might be looking for ways to obtain human milk.

“Mom’s own milk is always the best option,” Gina Juliano, a registered nurse and Illinois Board Certified Lactation Consultant at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center says. “However, in certain situations, human donor milk is a great bridge that can protect vulnerable infants.”

That vulnerability is what makes milk sharing risky. With no regulations governing the testing, safe handling, storage and delivery of human milk from informal sharing organizations, parents have limited options when it comes to ensuring that shared milk is what the group says it is.

Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics encourage parents to only obtain donated human milk from reputable sources like Human Milk Banking Association of North America-accredited Milk Banks. The HMBANA, in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and the US Food and Drug Administration, has established strict guidelines for screening, processing, and dispensing donated human milk.

This process of testing milk for contaminants and screening donor mothers for diseases, medications and drug and alcohol use prior to donation is a way of protecting young and sometimes sick and vulnerable infants from receiving unsafe milk. Then, once the donors have passed the screening process, these healthy lactating women may drop off their donations of breast milk to a conveniently located milk depot like the one at Illinois Masonic, home of the first human milk depot in Chicago.

Many informal sharing sites also urge donors and recipients to follow recommended safe handling practices and warn about incidents of contamination with cow’s milk, bacteria and viruses. These hazards are often a direct result of women diluting their breastmilk with cow’s milk or improperly collecting and storing their milk prior to selling it. They’re also why Juliano only recommends obtaining human milk from HMBANA-certified Milk Banks. Even so, many parents are unaware of the potential risks associated with shared milk.

Juliano stresses the importance of getting information from legitimate sources, including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), La Leche League, the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes and other reputable groups that base their recommendations on sound, scientific research.

If you want to learn more about the risks of milk sharing or what’s involved in becoming a milk donor for yourself, ask your doctor.

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Phil Andres

Phil Andres, health enews contributor, is a copywriter for Advocate Aurora Health in Downers Grove. He’s also a classically trained chef, former trivia monkey and one of two males in a family of five (if you count the dog).