Many parents view breastfeeding as the ideal nutritional start for their baby. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of your baby’s life, and encourage parents to keep up the nursing relationship for about 2 years, or even longer.
Of course, what works on paper doesn’t always translate in practice. Some parents who aren’t able to supply enough breast milk on their own are turning to milk sharing for their babies. Here’s what you may encounter when looking for breast milk from donor sources.
Donor Milk Basics
Breastfeeding via a donor is far from a modern practice. Various ancient texts refer to wet nurses, or women hired or enslaved to nurse someone else’s baby. Wet nursing was such a thriving industry in 18th century France that it was rarer for a baby to be breastfed by its own mother!
These days, there are three primary routes to access donor human milk.
- A hospital or official milk banking association, such as the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA)
- Informal, Internet-based milk sharing, including for-profit milk banks
- Informal, in-person milk sharing, including cross-nursing (directly breastfeeding another parent’s baby, rather than donating expressed milk)
Safe Milk-Sharing Practices
One of the benefits of going through a hospital or milk bank is that administrators carefully screen the donors. People donating breast milk have to complete a medical questionnaire to make sure they don’t have communicable illnesses like hepatitis or HIV. Donors are also screened for lifestyle habits (for example, donors receive instructions about abstaining from alcohol before expressing milk for donation). The donated milk is also pasteurized before it’s sent to recipient families to destroy pathogens.
There are two downsides to going through the official channels:
- Some hospitals or doctors, due to supply concerns, will make efforts to reserve donated breast milk for preterm babies or babies with other health problems. Parents of healthy, full-term infants may have a harder time accessing donor milk or may be asked to pay.
- Donated milk is expensive, running as high as $5 per ounce (for reference, exclusively breastfed babies drink an average of 25 ounces per day!)
Because of these drawbacks, some parents seek out alternate routes to obtain donated breast milk. The AAP and FDA advise never acquiring breast milk via an Internet source. Informal groups don’t perform the same screenings. You don’t know how the milk was stored, and at-home pasteurization methods are imperfect. A 2015 AAP study even found that 10% of breast milk samples purchased online were cut with cow’s milk.
The Internet makes breast milk donors and sellers easier to find than ever, but you’re taking a major gamble. It’s not worth the risk to trust a stranger to sell you body fluids for you to feed your child in the most vulnerable time in her life. At that point, opting for formula is safer.
Another potential breastfeeding solution is making an agreement with someone you know personally, either to directly nurse your child or provide expressed milk. Again, your pediatrician and major health organizations will likely advise against this practice. You may love your best friend dearly, but do you know enough about her medical history and habits to trust her to feed your baby?
This can be something more of a gray area. Some parents are deeply uncomfortable with the thought of having their baby nurse from someone else. In other cases, cross-nursing can even be viewed as heroic, as was the case with a police officer who breastfed an abandoned newborn at the scene. You need to make the best call you can for your baby’s health, so don’t enter into a milk-sharing agreement lightly. Feeding your baby works best when breast milk or formula is from a source you know is safe.