Milk Banks and Online Milk Sharing

 

Written by Samantha Sorden

If bottles of extra breast milk take up a majority of your freezer space, perhaps you should consider making a donation to your local milk bank to help other infants in need. North America is home to 11 milk banks, organizations generally associated with hospitals, where mothers like you can donate their extra expressed milk. Milk banks collect, store, process, test and dispense donated milk, most often to hospitals that help care for ill or premature infants.

Strict regulations ensure that the human milk is clean and safe for infant consumption. First, the donor milk is transferred from the milk storage containers to a glass flask where each “pool,” a combination of milk from three to five donors, is thoroughly mixed to evenly distribute nutrients. The milk is then transferred to four ounce glass bottles for pasteurization, a gentle heating process that helps eliminate bacteria while keeping most of the milk’s benefits intact. After pasteurization, milk samples are tested for bacteria and contaminated milk is tossed out. The good milk is frozen, stored and shipped to hospitals.

This sterilization process was not always so clinical. Back in the day, children were breastfed by friends, relatives and even strangers, a common practice referred to as “wet nursing.” The Code of Hammurabi, dating back to 2250 BC, detailed attributes of a good wet nurse. Many believed children inherited physical, mental and emotional traits of their wet nurses, so the selection process was very important. By the 13th century, many European women made more money working as wet nurses than any other job opportunity available to women. But by the early 20th century, wet nurses were out and artificial formula was in, particularly in North America.

The first legitimate milk bank opened in Vienna, Austria in 1909, following advancements in technology, health and hygiene. Ten years later, milk banks opened in Boston and Germany as well. Sometimes donors would breastfeed babies, but in most cases there was no direct contact between donors and babies. Nevertheless, the popularity of milk banking declined dramatically in the 80s. Many families were worried about the transmission of viruses like AIDS through breast milk.

Now many hospitals and families with ill infants turn to milk banks for support. An overwhelming number of medical authorities and organizations agree that breast is best, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Obstetricians, and American College of Nurse-Midwives to name a few. Research indicates that feeding your baby human milk helps ensure he/she receives proper nourishment and is protected from diseases like lower respiratory infections, asthma, obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Armed with this knowledge, many families with healthy children now turn to the interweb for assistance. Most milk banks distribute milk to hospitals for premature or sick infants, and healthy moms and babies are often turned away. Eats On Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies can be found on Facebook, linking mothers (and their babies) with potential donors. Mothers can communicate with donors directly and request blood test results to help protect against the spread of disease and viruses. And if the mother is still not satisfied, they can pasteurize the milk at home on the stove.

These groups claim that breast milk sharing online is just as safe as getting milk from the milk bank, but many medical experts do not agree. HIV and herpes, amongst over viruses, can be passed to your baby through unpasteurized breast milk; and so can residual amounts of some prescription drugs. Here is the official statement from the FDA regarding milk sharing online:

“If you are considering feeding a baby with human milk from a source other than the baby’s mother, you should know that there are possible health and safety risks for the baby. Risks for the baby include exposure to infectious diseases, including HIV, to chemical contaminants, such as some illegal drugs, and to a limited number of prescription drugs that might be in the human milk, if the donor has not been adequately screened. In addition, if human milk is not handled and stored properly, it could be like any type of milk, become contaminated and unsafe to drink…. When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the Internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk. In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby.”