And more and more, mothers are looking to help other moms by donating their own milk.
After my son died, I felt like I had insult to injury in that I did not stop producing milk for three months. For three months, I bound myself, desperate to stop the milk from coming and reminding me he was gone. At the time, I looked into donating the milk, feeling like I'd at least be able to help another mother, but because I took a common allergy medicine, most milk banks declined my offer.
It turns out, I wasn't aware of what resources were out there. To be fair, my heart was broken, so I didn't do any major digging around, and the internet was not quite the wealth of information as it is now.
Now things are so different, and I am so glad to see the options mothers have to share their liquid gold.
Whether we want to admit it or not, there are situations where mothers simply cannot lactate. Whether they have had mastectomies, have no or low-supply, are adoptive parents, or have congenital conditions that prevent them from producing milk, there are many reasons it just can't be done. Such was the case for Khadijah Kelley Cisse (formerly Kelley Faulkner), who founded MilkShare in 2004.
Related: The Gift of Liquid Gold: Real Stories of Breast Milk Sharing
Kelley Cisse had a glandular breast condition that prevented her from making enough milk for her child, but she wanted her son to have breast milk regardless. She sought out and accepted milk from 30 different mothers who donated it, and as a result, she was able to feed her son breast milk for two years. In the last ten years, she's been able to use over 30,000 ounces of donated milk for her three children.
Since then, MilkShare exists to make mothers sharing human milk with other mothers who need it. MilkShare is an online resource that connects mothers at a time where access to milk from milk banks may not be feasible.
There are 26 public milk banks in the U.S. and Canada, and five more are anticipated to come. Public milk banks are limited and costly (as much as $100/day) though some insurance companies can and do reimburse for prescribed milk, so they are an option worth checking out. Milk banks combine and pasteurize donated milk, and eliminate the need for formula in situations where mothers want to give their babies breast milk.
Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies are also online options that connect mothers who need milk with mothers who want to share. More and more, mothers are looking to these organizations, similar to MilkShare, because it's a way for them to supply their children with breast milk without the excess cost and/or regulation required when going through milk banks. Both have social media connections as well that let mothers connect quickly and conveniently to get milk for their little ones.
Milk sharing is not without controversy, of course. In 2010, the FDA decided to give a warning about the potential risks of milk sharing. They also began the exploration of regulation issues with its Pediatric Advisory Committee. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) worked in conjunction with the FDA to create guidelines for milk sharing.
Neither entity endorses the sharing of milk between mothers without a third party involved, but many mothers believe that risk can be managed, and the benefits of breast milk for babies who'd otherwise not have it make it worth it. In 2012, in response to the guidelines, Karleen Gribble and Bernice Hausman published an article in the Australasian Medical Journal that suggested organizations look for ways to share safe practices for sharing, instead of just saying it's not safe to share mother-to-mother.
Related: Breastmilk Helps Preemie Babies Grow Bigger Brains
And while opponents of milk sharing will claim that the milk of another mother takes away from the sensory stimulation that comes with breastfeeding for a baby, as well as the removal of tailored antibodies transferred from mother to baby directly, most mothers who receive breast milk for their babies are grateful for the positive things the milk carries.
Infant fed-formulas have no antibodies to protect babies, and no living means to prevent illnesses. More, infant formula composition remains the same, never changing to meet the needs of growing babies, and mothers who look for donated milk look for these benefits.
That said, there are risks to milk sharing that can be managed. It's wise to screen donors as much as possible - for things such disease or medication exposure or even allergen exposure. Most mothers who donate and receive from milk share groups are typically looking for the same thing - feeding all the babies with the best human milk they can provide.
There is a sisterhood bond when it comes to sharing milk, one that mirrors many cultures who share their milk between children, as well as those who just want to help other mothers out.
I've always been a 'breast is best' advocate, but that's not always possible. A tragic, but perfect example is found within my own family - my niece recently died from birth complications, leaving her infant son with no mother for breast milk. Thankfully, my sister (who is taking care of her grandson) is connecting with wonderful women looking to share milk, and the baby is thriving.
Yes, there may be a risk to sharing milk. But we're thankful there's an opportunity to do so.