Mothers experiencing breastfeeding difficulties are turning to social media sites like Facebook to source breastmilk donations from other lactating mothers.
Facebook pages such as Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies are international communities with state-based Australian pages that give advice and guidance to parents engaging in breastmilk sharing.
They also provide a forum for meeting and sharing milk.
The Australian versions of the pages have more than 16,000 followers between them.
RMIT School of Health and Biomedical Sciences lactation consultant and lecturer Jennifer James said the health benefits of breastmilk over formula were part of the reason women were seeking donations.
“Infant formula provides nutrition and that is it; children will grow, but that is it,” Dr James said.
“They don’t develop their gut appropriately, which has implications for their immune system and lifelong health.
“Women increasingly know that, and if they can’t breastfeed themselves, then the next best option is the breastmilk of another woman.”
In Australia it is illegal to buy and sell body parts, including breastmilk, so the online communities do not offer prices on milk exchange.
Queensland mother Marissa Price began seeking donor milk after her breastmilk did not come in until three weeks after the birth of her child.
“When my milk did eventually come in, he was too lazy and wouldn’t latch and work for it from the breast,” Ms Price said.
“My body wouldn’t respond to a pump very well, so that’s when I made the decision to source donor milk.”
Ashleigh Hayes, who lives in New Zealand with her three children, recently reached out on the Queensland Human Milk 4 Human Babies page while on a trip to Australia.
Like Ms Price, she became involved in milk sharing after breastfeeding troubles left her searching the internet for other options.
“I thought there must be something else out there, and I googled and found a Facebook page and never looked back,” Ms Hayes said.
She believed there was a stigma around the practice that prevented women from getting involved.
“There are still mixed emotions about it. Even among my friends, I have friends that think it’s disgusting,” she said.
“People want to keep it private because of the ridicule. We adults put other [animals’] milk in our bodies.
“I would prefer to put a natural milk into my baby’s body than a chemically-formulated one you buy at the supermarket.”
Health risks and the normality of sharing
Health authorities warn that infectious diseases can be transmitted through breastmilk, and parents should be cautious in accepting milk from strangers.
However, Dr James said she was unaware of any deaths or adverse outcomes from sharing milk.
“It is far better that if women are going to share breastmilk, they share it with people they know, but sometimes that is just not possible,” she said.
“Women who belong to the online communities of milk-sharers have milk in their freezer, and there is way too much for their own baby and they offer it to someone in the online community.”
According to Dr James, the main safety risk involved in sharing milk was the possibility of contamination during transportation.
“Historically, women shared their breastmilk all the time,” Dr James said.
“A woman might breastfeed her sister’s child, if their sister became ill; a grandmother might re-lactate and feed her grandchild if the mother died.
“There are communities where women regularly breastfeed other women’s children.
“There are far more risks associated with formula-feeding than there are in terms of sharing breastmilk.”
Ms Price said she did not worry about the safety of sharing breastmilk.
“The women I have received donations off of have had bloods done to prove they are healthy,” she said.
“The milk is always transported in an esky and never defrosts.”
Ms Hayes agreed, saying she took precautions to ensure the milk was safe.
“You just have to trust your donor. I ask 50 million questions and I trust that they are telling me the truth,” Ms Hayes said.
“They are quite open with telling you if they have had an [alcoholic] drink or all the rest of it, so it is your choice if you want to take the donation or what.”
Is milk banking the answer?
As of 2014 there were five breastmilk banks operating in Australia — in Brisbane, Tweed Heads, Melbourne, New South Wales and Perth.
Donors banks around the world;
Europe has 203 milk banks, including 36 in France, 27 in Sweden, 30 in Italy, 17 in the United kingdom and 12 in Norway.
North America has 17, including 15 in the United States and two in Canada.
Brazil is reported to have about 200 milk banks.
There have been reports of banks being established in Africa, India, South America, China and the Philippines.
Source: Donor Human Milk Banking in Australia paper, released in 2014 by the Australian Government Department of Health.
Dr James said the breastmilk banks could not meet demand because a large proportion of milk went to premature or sick babies.
“They can’t even begin to think about providing milk for full term, healthy babies that for whatever reason mum can’t breastfeed,” she said.
Dr James said more breastmilk banks operating in hospitals would be an ideal situation.
“Women who had milk to donate could donate it to a central point, and mothers who needed milk could receive it from a central point. It would be far more logical,” she said.
Ms Price agreed, saying she believed milk donations would be more popular if there was more education about breastfeeding.
“I honestly believe that breastfeeding and donor milk isn’t advocated enough and people aren’t educated enough on it,” she said.
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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