A mother’s milk is the primary source of nutrition for newborns and infants.
While studies show there are benefits to feeding babies with breast milk over formula, not all women can provide their baby with their own breast milk.
Not being able to provide your baby with breast milk may carry a stigma of inadequacy, but many groups are working hard to shed that stigma and allow all mothers a chance to provide their infants with human milk.
This is being done through donation and sharing.
"I personally say that breast isn’t best, it’s biologically normal,” said Brittany Baker, a certified postpartum doula, who received breast milk donations to supplement her son, Riley.
Breastfeeding has become the preferred method of most mothers to provide nutrition for their babies, over using formula.
"Human babies were meant to receive human milk, you know. They get all these wonderful antibodies, the perfect balance of protein, nutrients, lots of protection from the mother, directly, which and those are the things that can’t be replicated through formula,” said Kimberly Kretschner, a Lactation Consultant at United Hospital in St. Paul.
Health experts say breast milk protects babies from developing problems later in life, such as obesity, leukemia, and allergies.
"It can protect them from recurrent ear infections, it can help with their lung development. There are just thousands of things that this breast milk can do, to benefit these babies,” explained Mary Kelley, the Executive Director of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (or HMBANA).
HMBANA is an international association of non-profit milk banks throughout the United States, but there are a few locations in Canada.
Kelley added, “We know that breast milk can greatly benefit those [prematurely born] children and decrease the risk of them developing NEC, long term.”
NEC, short for necrotizing entercolitis, is a disease often seen in premature babies, resulting in long term effects to their colon and intestinal processes.
So, what happens when a mother can’t provide human milk for her child, herself?
"There’s a strong desire to provide breast milk for babies and if mother’s aren’t able to provide enough on their own, I think they’re pretty motivated to find it through another source,” said Kretschner.
As a result, mothers turn to donor milk banks, friends or family members, and in a world of technology: through the Internet.
"There are people selling their milk on eBay, Craigslist. There are mom groups set up on Facebook that are where moms will seek out other mothers who they don’t know, to get milk from," said Kretschner.
There are two categories of donation: Formal and Informal.
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America falls under formal donation.
"What we do is we really work to help those non-profit milk banks that are accredited, through us, to help build their capacity to be able to collect and distribute more donor breast milk,” said Kelley.
Donor milk banks, like HMBANA, take donors through a rigorous screening process, to ensure their milk is pure.
“The mother’s who have chosen to donate their milk to a HMBANA milk bank, they first have to go through a phone screening. And during this phone screening, they are asked certain questions about their health history, their lifestyle, anything that we may need to know to determine whether their breast milk is going to be able to be used for this process,” said Kelley.
Kelley explained further, “Once they get approved through the phone screening, then every mother has to undergo a blood screening. And in that blood screening is when we check for any communicable diseases that have been studied and determined to pass through breast milk. The majority of milk banks, if anything does show up, at that point, the milk is then pulled and not used for the pasteurization process. And it may be used for something different like research on breast milk or anything like that.”
If approved, the milk is then pasteurized.
"They pasteurize the milk in a shaking water bath. And that pasteurization process normally takes about 30 minutes and what it does, is it kills anything that could pass through breast milk, but it keeps the majority of the immunities in tact," said Kelley.
However, donor milk banks present a major issue for many mothers: it isn’t cheap.
"It isn’t really feasible for anybody, no matter how much money you have, to keep buying banked milk at $4 an ounce, plus shipping. It’s just not feasible," said Kretschner.
The solution to $4 an once mother’s milk? Well, none other than informal donation.
"I used an informal donor process through an organization called Human Milk for Human Babies,” said Baker.
Baker, a Rochester resident, was able to breast feed her son, but needed extra help when she returned to work.
"I didn’t have any health issues or anything like that. It was just very strenuous pumping full time, in addition to breast feeding at home, and working and balancing my life,” said Baker.
However, with informal donation, there are big risks.
"You need to make sure that you have a good relationship with your donor and you ask them questions about their lifestyle and any recreational and prescription drug use. So it takes a lot of diligence on the recipient’s end to make sure they’re doing something that is safe and that you’re comfortable with, but I felt that the risks were outweighed by the benefits,” added Baker.
“I do worry that some mothers need to understand the difference between informal milk sharing and the milk they get from milk banks, because some women think that women are just pumping and dropping their milk off at the milk bank and they’re sending it out. They’re not understanding the screening process and the pasteurization process, the bacteria count, all of that. They don’t know that that’s what milk banks are doing, they think it’s the same, but it isn’t,” said Kretschner.
Kretschner went on to add: “The potential is there for someone tampering with their milk or diluting it. Because now I’m seeing four ounces of milk instead of it really being two ounces. So, the potential is there, but I am not aware of any. But I am concerned that as this becomes more popular, that people will be motivated to do things that they shouldn’t be doing.”
Now, aside from various risks associated with informal sharing, what about those who choose to use formula? With all of the benefits of breast milk, are those who choose to forego breastfeeding making the wrong decision?
"I think moms who choose not to breastfeed sometimes feel as if they’re being surrounded by the breast feeding police. And we hope that every woman feels good about her decision, the best decision she could make for her baby, and sometimes breast feeding is not the best decision for that mom and baby,” said Kretschner.
“Really, it’s about doing your own research and finding what’s best and what’s going to be the most comfortable for you and your family and your lifestyle. Every woman deserves to be supportive in that decision,” said Baker.
So be it breast feeding yourself, receiving milk via informal or formal milk sharing, or even choosing to feed your baby formula, the experts say there is no wrong answer to how to provide for your baby.
No matter what the method mother’s might choose to feed their baby, ultimately, they do what is best for their lifestyle and their child.