Why Breast Milk Sharing Is Booming Online

Filed under: Babies, In The News, Breast-Feeding

breast milk sharing

Despite a widespread push to breast-feed, the FDA warns against sharing unregulated breast milk. Credit: Getty

Eats on Feets is a Facebook group created in July 2010 by an Arizona midwife as a place where women in need of breast milk for their babies can find breast milk to share. Since then it's gone global with 110 chapters in all 50 states and more than 20 countries. Not surprisingly, the Food and Drug Administration is not a fan.

Specifically, they warn against sharing unregulated breast milk, citing the obvious dangers of infectious diseases, illegal drugs and prescription drugs being passed on to the baby. It's unlikely that the donor has been screened for such. In addition, there are potential storage and handling issues.

Given that millions of healthy babies drink formula (a complete, proven source of infant nutrition), it's safe to say that any potential ill effects from the breast milk substitute are negligible. That said, it's hard to imagine today's safety-obsessed moms feeding their children another woman's milk without comprehensive knowledge of where it came from. Hard to imagine, that is, until you consider how women who can't breast-feed must feel when they log on to an all-knowing parenting website or engage in playground conversation with those who consider breast-feeding an indisputable mommy must.

Then there's the concerted effort by several organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization to push the "breast is best" concept. In fact, WHO actually recommends "raw" donor milk if a woman can't produce enough of her own. And with the advent of Eats on Feets, the Internet has been abuzz with parents (aptly nicknamed "lactivists") just dying for a chance to share their opinion on the subject.

"If you make a choice to formula feed out of convenience, then you do not deserve to have kids!" said one poster.

"Every baby deserves human milk," said another.

Needless to say, new moms are feeling squeezed.

"If we formula feed, we feel we are giving our amazing children 'second best' or handicapping them for life," said one mother who admitted to sobbing in the shower from shame and guilt when she gave up breast-feeding.

Has the breast milk brigade of pushy peers, organization endorsements and calculated campaigns gone too far when a mother feels like unscreened milk is her only option to raise a healthy baby?

It's not hard to see how a mother could feel compelled to go to unsafe lengths to be sure her child is receiving the magical milk responsible for illness-free childhoods and supposedly above-average intellects. Considering milk from one of the 10 human milk banks in the U.S. can cost anywhere from $24-$40 for an 8-ounce bottle, it's no surprise that desperate women have gone elsewhere.

As natural as nursing may seem, many women don't produce enough milk, produce none at all or have extreme difficulty with the latching process. Add that to the possibility of a clogged milk duct or infection and, well, breast-feeding doesn't sound quite as beautiful as the La Leche League literature implies. On the other hand, some new mothers' cups runneth over. Eats on Feets donors claim they want to share their excess with those who need it most -- and often free of charge.

After all, in addition to being cheap and convenient, breast milk composition changes as babies grow to provide exactly what's needed for each stage of development. And it's not as if breast milk sharing is a new concept; the practices of wet nursing and cross-nursing (i.e. nursing a friend's baby) have been around for ages, though at least in those cases the mother knew the milk source personally.

To be sure, the women providing milk for use by families in need are probably not the same bunch shooting heroin while their kids play in the other room, and home-pasteurization by flash heating has proven successful in killing disease-causing agents. As another Internet poster put it, "Isn't it a little weird that culturally we don't think twice about milk from an unknown cow, but get grossed out at the thought of actual human milk." Hmmm ...

If nothing else, the popularity of breast milk sharing on the Internet likely spurred the recent meeting of the FDA's pediatric advisory committee to discuss donor and banked human milk. They concluded that "the industry is doing a good job with screening, storing and distributing," but further research is needed on the risks and benefits of milk banking, according to an FDA spokesperson.

Breast milk is, without a doubt, a natural miracle, but with formula substitutes proven to nourish growing babies, women should renounce the guilt associated with using it -- and self-appointed mommy experts should stick to raising their own little angels. In the meantime, perhaps lactivists should devise a plan to accommodate the glaring need for more cost effective, regulated human milk banks. It would be a much more productive use of their time.

Blair Henley is a freelance writer based in Florida and a regular contributor to WorldTennisMagazine.com. Her non-tennis related work has been published in the Sacramento Bee, the Springfield News-Leader and on AOL News.

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