Would you use a stranger’s breast milk for your baby?

Hear what local Hudson Valley parents are saying

Family, motherly love

Do you remember when you first gave birth? That beautiful bundle of joy, completely dependent on you to survive in the world. I was extraordinarily happy. I was also terrified.

I thought, ‘I am fully responsible for this human being. I am the one who has to feed her, clothe her, shelter her, and keep her safe. If I make a mistake, the consequences could be disastrous.’ It was enthralling, wonderful, and scary all at the same time. Now imagine not being able to nourish your newborn. Watching them get frustrated at feeding time, knowing that they are always hungry. This is a reality for many women who try to breastfeed and cannot.

Breastfeeding can be a wonderful bonding experience between a mother and baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that, “breastfeeding and human milk are the normative standards for infant feeding and nutrition. Given the documented short and long-term medical and neurodevelopmental advantages of breastfeeding, infant nutrition should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice.” Sometimes that’s easier said than done. If you try to breastfeed and your child is crying and losing weight, breastfeeding can become a nightmare. Many turn to formula when breastfeeding does not work. But there are some who are sharing breast milk with those who cannot produce enough milk for their own child, with those who are undergoing medical treatments and cannot breastfeed, and for those who adopt or foster a child.

READ MORE: The 4 most common breastfeeding questions

Taking precautions
Maybe the idea of accepting donated breast milk raises a red flag or two for you. Use a stranger’s milk for my baby?  How do I know the donor isn’t sick or a drug user? Bekki Hill, a certified lactation counselor from Red Hook, suffered from a chronic low milk supply when she was breastfeeding. She experienced all of the frustrations of not being able to produce enough milk for her children. She turned to donor milk. “The first time we took milk from a stranger, I laid up in bed awake all night," she recalled. "Even though the donor  was a doctor in New York City and she gave me all the proof in the world that she was healthy!” It can be scary to take a stranger’s milk. There are milk banks that screen, pasteurize, and process milk, but that can be expensive and most of the time that milk is reserved for preemies who are at risk.     

Hill revealed that you can share breast milk without the cost. Websites such as Milkshare.com and the Facebook pages Modern Milksharing and Human Milk 4 Human Babies help people learn about breast milk sharing, the precautions to take, safe handling techniques and helps connect donors to families in need. These sites also offer community resources and support.

READ MORE: Is breastfeeding right for you?

How do I know it’s safe?
Hill recommends three important steps to take when considering using donated milk. First, once you’ve made a connection and have a donor, get to know the mom. “This mother is feeding her baby this milk too," she said. "If the baby is healthy and thriving, you can assume that
the donor mom is confident in the safety of her own milk.” She also suggests that donors have nothing to gain. “Pumping is hard work," she said. "Why would you lie about it?"

This is different from milk banks, in which money is paid for the milk. With breast milk donors, there is no money being exchanged. There is simply a network of mothers with excessive supply wanting to help those in need.

Second, most mothers are blood tested during pregnancy. It's okay, and somewhat expected, for you to ask to see the results from those tests as well as other lab work. Sometimes you can get a note from the donor's doctor or midwife stating that this mother is healthy and able to donate milk.

Finally, the most important step is safe handling. The milk needs to be shipped frozen and used within the expiration date. “Women have been doing this pretty much since the beginning of time," said Hill. "We have thousands and thousands of babies in need and thousands and thousands of ounces of unused milk out there.” Websites like Milkshare.com help connect the two.

READ MORE: Tips for managing stress while pregnant

Filling the freezer
Galisha Fleming of New Windsor was fostering a newborn boy while breastfeeding her own 5 month old daughter. The newborn was being fed formula and was vomiting, colicky, and gassy. Fleming asked the biological mother if it would be okay to breastfeed her son. Once she received permission, Fleming began breastfeeding the newborn. His symptoms cleared up immediately.

Sarah Holt of Wappingers Falls donated her breastmilk to people in need. She pumped with her first born, anticipating a return to work. “I continued to pump once or twice a day, so I'd have a store of milk for that return to the office, which never came," she said.  "By the time I realized I wasn't going back, I already had gallons of frozen milk in the fridge. Back then I didn't really know any other moms, so it just sat there in my freezer until my little girl was well onto solid foods and I ended up throwing it all out. Tossing all that milk into the trash was pretty darned depressing.” By the time her second and third child came along, Sarah had learned about breastmilk sharing. She knew a woman who was in need. “One mom was using a supplemental nursing system with her baby because Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome was wreaking havoc with her milk supply.  We had talked a lot about nursing and I realized I could put my crazy oversupply to good use this time around, so I offered to pump for her.  I think I pumped twice per day for her for several months.   I'd freeze all the milk for a week or so, then we'd meet up for a hand-off.”           

There are many benefits to breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics states, “The AAP continues to support the unequivocal evidence that breastfeeding protects against a variety of diseases and conditions in the infant such as: diarrhea, respiratory tract infection, otitis media, urinary tract infection, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, and obesity.” But breastfeeding is not a possibility for some people. Whether they have a low milk supply, have adopted or are fostering a child, or are battling an illness, many moms who want to breastfeed cannot. For these moms, milk sharing might prove to be invaluable. There are precautions to take, but it’s nice to know that there are more options available than just formula.