Sharing Breast Milk Is Becoming Popular, But Is It Safe?

November 8, 2019
Family & Pregnancy

Approximately 81% of women begin to breastfeed their children at birth. However, pumping breast milk can be time-consuming, exhausting and painful, so some women would prefer to buy milk than to do it themselves.  Two % of parents are unable to produce enough milk to sustain their child. Though we don’t have an accurate estimate, with 28 nation-wide milk banks and a surge in online sharing communities, it’s clear that sharing breast milk is becoming a common practice. If you’re curious about sharing breast milk, we’ll give you an overview of how it got started and what the process is like. Let’s take a closer look.   

Have you thought about donating or purchasing breast milk?

It’s understandable why a mother might need to purchase breast milk. Research shows that breastfeeding has numerous benefits for the baby that range from reduced risk of certain diseases like asthma and type 2 diabetes, to improved cognitive development and early attachment. Because of the obvious benefits of breastfeeding, parents are participating increasingly in networks of breastmilk sharing groups to help others who can't produce enough for their own child.

Elisabeth Anderson-Sierra, who you might recall from her viral video on hyper lactation syndrome, produces excess breast milk. Folks with this syndrome experience increased milk production causing breast milk to overflow. Anderson-Sierra produces so much milk, that she was able to donate a whopping 400 gallons as of 2018. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly ten times more milk than the average breastfeeding person. Her milk has helped “countless infants, including micro-preemies who require breast milk for optimal nutrition, and babies.” But what are the potential risks of sharing breast milk? While sharing milk might seem like a viable option for those who can’t or choose not to pump breast milk, the experts are shedding light on some serious health implications for both parents and children, and ways to determine if the milk that you share or receive is safe. We investigated the risks and benefits, along with some safer options.

Potential Risks & Dangerous Practices

Informal milk sharing networks like Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB) are also on the rise. People in need of milk, and those pumping milk to share alike, post to Facebook groups to find a donor. This poses concerns for health professionals and their patients, as a number of diseases, including HIV, can be transmitted through breast milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages proper research and vetting before sharing breastmilk. They support “donor human milk to help boost the health of small, preterm babies when needed” but call for “screening, pasteurization and distribution through established donor milk banks to ensure safety.” Similarly, the FDA’s top tips for safe sharing can be summarized as follows: consult with your doctor, weigh the risks, and “use milk from a source that has screened its milk donors and taken other precautions to ensure the safety of its milk.” They warn that breast milk sharing could facilitate disease transfer and in an unregulated manner, could be unsafe.If you’re thinking about using or donating breast milk, we recommend taking a closer look at the FDA’s website and guidelines for doing so before you make your decision. 

Safe Ways to Share Breast Milk

The increasing demand for breast milk donation and purchase across the US has come with the development of accreditation like that of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. The safest way to donate and receive breast milk is through milk banks. In order to donate, you’d need to contact your nearest milk bank. You’ll participate in a phone interview, and blood tests (covered by the milk bank.) Once approved, you’ll find out the next steps (whether you need to go to a facility or can pump at home) in order to donate.

Upon donation, breast milk is pasteurized, “screened, pooled, and tested so that it can be dispensed to hospitals and outpatient families for use by infants in need.” So, why does donated breast milk need to be pasteurized? The Milk Bank explains: “pasteurization kills the bad while retaining the good…Both the American College of Pediatricians and the Center for Disease Control recommend pasteurized human donor milk if mother’s own milk is unavailable.” Once dispensed to preemies and other children in need across hospitals in the US, not much is left. So, what happens to the leftovers? They are available at local milk banks across the country for those in need. If you are interested in receiving milk, you’d need to contact your nearest milk bank.

Currently, there are 28 nonprofit milk banks (interactive map shown above) in the U.S. that are vetted through the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. The association follows “strict screening, processing, and dispensing guidelines that were developed by HMBANA in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and US Food and Drug Administration. Member milk banks also follow the regulations set forth by their state departments of health. HMBANA updates these guidelines as needed and regularly assesses member milk banks for compliance.” Their website includes more information including research, statistics, and processes for milk donation.

In a world that’s increasingly influenced by social media, everything from finding a doctor to finding breast milk can be done online with the click of a few buttons. You might still be contemplating your options. Before you make any decisions, do your research. When it comes to your baby’s health, you want the best of the best. If you’re in search of the best pediatrician for your little one, look no further. We’ll help you find a doctor today.

Lily Dulberg

Lily is a Copywriter and Data Analyst. She works with startups, nonprofits and businesses across the board to ignite engagement and develop captivating campaigns. She works closely with the Voro team on social media and newsletter communications to keep the Voro community up to date on the latest in health and wellness. Lily is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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