Before your little one arrived, many mothers may have taken it for granted that they’ll be breastfeeding from birth. With any luck, once you started nursing you had little or no trouble producing enough milk for your baby, and then some — leaving you wondering if there’s something you could do with all your extra milk. On the other hand, maybe you found that, just like many mothers out there, you struggled when nursing and are looking for alternative ways to feed your baby breast milk. Either way, there’s a solution that might work for you: buying breast milk or breast milk sharing. Whether you’re donating or receiving breast milk, it’s important to come up with a plan that works for you and that your doctor approves. Here’s what you need to know about buying breast milk or sharing breast milk, from how it’s done to what’s safe.
DONATING YOUR BREAST MILK
If you’re lucky to have more milk than you know what to do with, you may want to donate your excess to women who are having trouble nursing — especially those with sick or premature infants in the hospital. You can do so at one of nonprofit milk banks around the country that are part of the umbrella United Kingdom Association for Milk Banking.
Here’s the process at one of the largest UKAMB banks in the country:
- Commitment. Although you can give as much as you’d like, you’ll need to commit to donating a minimum of 200 ounces of breast milk.
- Interviews and questionnaires. To get involved, you’ll undergo an intensive screening process, including a phone interview and written health history questionnaire. The UKAMB has relatively strict guidelines, excluding moms who belong to certain high-risk groups (for example, you can’t donate if you’ve received blood transfusions or tissue or organ transplants in the past 12 months, or if you were born in a country where HIV rates are particularly high). You also can’t drink more than two ounces of alcohol per day or smoke; even vegans who don’t supplement their diet with vitamin B12 can be ruled out.
- Doctor’s approval. You’re required to provide written consent from your doctor and your baby’s that you’re able to donate.
- Screening. Next, you’ll need to submit your milk to the bank’s lab, which tests for infections and other conditions that might compromise its safety and quality.
- Delivery. After passing the screening test, OhioHealth sends an insulated box containing materials to collect and freeze the milk, including sterile containers to store the milk, a cooler, a mailing label and instructions to easily mail the package back whenever it’s convenient. The milk bank pays for lab work and overnight shipping of the breast milk if you live out of the area as often as you’d like — from once or twice a week to once a month.
- Blending. Once the bank gets the milk, it’s logged into the system, thawed and usually mixed with milk from two to four other moms to get the best balance of nutrients.
- Testing and bottling. The milk is then tested for protein, fat and calories; put into bottles; pasteurised; and screened for bacteria.
- Distribution. Once the cultures come back completely negative, showing no bacteria, viruses or infections, the milk is distributed.
Nonprofit milk banks have a priority list of babies and moms they must give the milk to in order of importance. First on the list are premature babies and sick, hospitalised infants; then sick babies who are no longer in the hospital but are failing to thrive or suffering from another condition. After all those babies are fed, then healthy babies and adults come last.
FOR-PROFIT VS. NONPROFIT MILK BANKS
Thinking about trying to make a bit of money from your excess breast milk? The safest use of your supply may be to donate it to a nonprofit bank. Some experts caution moms against buying breast milk from for-profit banks, since they don’t always have the same screening procedures the nonprofits do. In fact, the two types of banks are in constant debate over whose processes produce the safest milk for needy newborns. Plus, since women are getting paid for their milk and the companies, in turn, are also making money from the sales, some argue that the bottom line can taint the exchange in one way or another.
It’s a personal choice, however, since the for-profits firmly believe moms deserve to be paid for the time and trouble they go through to give their milk to women who aren’t producing enough for their babies.
GETTING BREAST MILK FOR YOUR BABY
If your baby isn’t premature or doesn’t have a medical condition that requires human milk (including prematurity, an intolerance to formula or allergies) and you’re among the many mothers who struggle with breastfeeding, talk to your GP. Many nursing issues can be daunting to resolve on your own — but can be solved with the help of a professional.
If, however, you’ve exhausted all possible professional medical guidance and are still not able to make enough milk to feed your baby, research has shown that donated breast milk can nourish babies as well as their mothers’ own milk can. Here are a few milk sharing options available to you:
Donated milk at your hospital
Your first port of call should be to check with the hospital where you gave birth. Some have a supply of what’s known as “compassionate use” breast milk, or donated milk that’s left over for moms who aren’t able to adequately feed their babies on their own but aren’t high on the priority list of those who get milk from banks first.
Donated breast milk from a milk bank
If a local hospital doesn’t offer “compassionate use” milk, then it’s possible to try sourcing breast milk from one of the nonprofit UKAMB banks and/or a wide range of other milk banks in the United Kingdom.
In order to buy from either a nonprofit or for-profit bank, you’ll need to get a prescription from your doctor. Contact several different UKAMB nonprofits and other milk banks so you’re on multiple milk banks’ lists for donor milk.
Be aware, however, that although it’s possible for mothers with healthy babies to get milk from a nonprofit, moms with needy babies are first in line — and the demand well exceeds the current supply.
Buying breast milk online
If you aren’t able to get donated milk from a nonprofit bank, then you may have heard of for-profit milk share collectives or breast milk-sharing communities. These sites either sell breast milk or are essentially like Gumtree for breast-milk sharing — networks connecting moms with other moms to do the trade.
The risks of getting involved with these co-op is enormous. As the mothers who are selling their milk and the collectives themselves have money at stake, quality could be compromised for the sake of profit. Additionally, the processes are completely unregulated with these online groups. Screening donors, testing milk, pasteurising and shipping methods aren’t always in line with those of the regulated nonprofits. That means there is often little to no screening or pasteurising of the milk they’re dispensing.
For these reasons, the British Association of General Paediatrics (BAGP) strongly advise against buying breast milk online at all, ever. Research found that ten percent of samples tested were contaminated with cow’s milk. That, combined with the potential of untested milk that’s tainted with bacteria or infectious disease, make the possible hazards too great. Milk banks and neonatologists concur: Buying milk online is just not safe.
Switching to formula
If you find that breastfeeding doesn’t work out even with professional help, and you’ve exhausted hospitals and nonprofit milk banks, formula feeding — either exclusively or as a supplement to the breast milk you can produce — is ultimately your safest alternative. Many nursing mothers ultimately resort to this, so don’t beat yourself up or feel guilty.
Formula is created to supply your baby with all of her nutritional needs. Your baby will thrive no matter how you feed her, as long as you do so with love. Know that you’re doing the best you can for your little one — and she’ll grow up happy, healthy and none the wiser about what kind of milk she drank as a baby.