Will donor milk save or sink breastfeeding?

Whenever there is another article about donor milk, I do a happy dance.  Last week there was a great article in Time.com about the increasing competition between milk banks and milk sharing organizations for excess milk from producing mothers.  In February, a wonderful Boston.com article highlighted the power of donor milk in intensive care for preemies, and how more hospitals are making screened donor milk the standard of care instead of infant formula. Actor  Neil Patrick Harris spoke openly about resorting to donor milk from a milk bank when his daughter, one of the twins born to him and his partner David Burtka via a surrogate, could not digest the various infant formula types they tried and continued to suffer severe gastrointestinal distress.   In fact, you could say that in the breastfeeding world, 2010 was the Year of Donor Milk.  

The explosion of media coverage can be traced back to the much-publicized shipment of donor milk to premature babies born in the wake of the Haiti earthquake disaster in January of 2010.   Although sharply (and we think wrongly) criticized, it raised tremendous awareness of donor milk at a time when most of America had never even heard of milk banks, and did not know that screened, donated human milk, not infant formula, is the next best food for babies after breastfeeding or the mother’s own pumped milk.   It underscored the great need for coordinated PR messages that call for well-meaning but misguided individuals and organizations to stop sending powdered infant formula, a practice which is terribly counterproductive in emergencies–these messages often come far too late or not at all from the disaster relief agencies that have the most air space.  (It also seems to have spurred at least one disaster relief agency, Save the Children, to launch heavily publicize* efforts to protect breastfeeding mothers in Haiti.)  After Haiti, media attention on donor milk continued.   Actress and BfB Champion for Moms Alysia Reiner shared her story of donating milk to a friend with USA Today in April 2010, actress and BfB Champion for Moms Jenna Elfman’s story of donating her milk to a baby born drug-addicted touched many hearts and underscored just how powerful our mom-made wonderfood really is.  At the same time, the mother-to-mother milk sharing group Eats on Feets burst on the scene with Facebook pages dedicated to connecting the haves and have-nots with each other in 50 states and 22 countries.   Donor milk, whether screened and pasteurized by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, or shared informally, has truly arrived. 

Every day and in emergencies, breastfeeding saves lives. Planning on nursing? The right crew can make for smoother sailing. Get a support group. Get expert lactation help. Make sure your hospital, pediatrician, employer and insurer are doing their part to help you succeed. We'll show you how at BestforBabes.org

So why am I particularly happy about donor milk news? Because I believe fundamentally that from the vantage of public perception and marketing, it is a gateway to greater appreciation of breastfeeding and human milk.   In American culture, we don’t value what is normal and free; we covet that which is expensive and exclusive, a fact that was keenly exploited by formula marketing in the mid 1900’s: infant formula was positioned as a luxury item, a notion that persists even among the poorest to this day, who ask for the can with the “gold ribbon” because they think it shows status (much like a benz or gold chains–only poor people breastfeed!).  By seeing human milk as precious and valuable, even expensive, whether through the needs of NICUs, celebrities who moan about the expense, or the eyes of mothers who go to great lengths to procure and use another mother’s milk over artificial substitutes, there is hope that our culture could begin to truly appreciate the life-saving and immune-boosting powers of the fountain of health under our noses.  There is hope that instead of being seen as “closer to breastmilk than ever before”, infant formula will assume it’s rightful place in the list of acceptable breastmilk substitutes–last.   There is hope that more mothers who can not breastfeed, or suffer complications in the hospital, will demand donor milk, because unless moms start demanding it, hospitals won’t make it available.   Perhaps some day, with the exception of the 66 babies born every year with galactosemia (the extremely rare true breastmilk intolerance), all 4 million babies born in the United States every year will be exclusively breastfed or receive donor breastmilk until one year of age, instead of only 80,000 (only 2% of moms make it to a year of exclusive breastfeeding).   The media can make this possible by acting as a catalyst for change, and we thank them opening the floodgates to a greater acceptance and appreciation of the human milk.

But . . . there are potential downfalls to all this media attention on donor milk.   As last week’s Time.com article already pointed out, as informal milk-sharing becomes more popular, the supply for milk banks may dwindle, jeopardizing the sickest and most fragile of our nation’s infants.   We need more human milk banks, not less; I’d love to see as many human milk banks as there are blood banks.  Another downfall, and very distressing to us, as only one reporter pointed out, all this milk sharing circumvents addressing the root of why women are turning to other mothers for donated milk:  they are being actively prevented from achieving their breastfeeding goals, because they are being rampantly booby-trapped by health care providers, hospitals, employers, insurers and our culture.  Don’t believe me?  Just ask the hundreds of women who responded to our call for stories for the Surgeon General.   Their anguish is palpable.  If we make milk-sharing too easy and convenient, we run the risk of not turning the anguish and anger of moms into pressure on hospitals to become baby-friendly.  We run the risk of losing the opportunity to put pressure on doctors to become educated in at least the basics of breastfeeding management, even if it’s just to be encouraging (not dismissive) to moms and to refer to an IBCLC.   We run the risk of not demanding that all hospitals have donated, screened milk on hand for preemies, and that insurance companies cover the cost.   And what about public perception?   Let’s not forget that milk-sharing perpetuates a bottle-feeding culture, and does not sow the seeds for a public acceptance of the act of breastfeeding.   We need greater awareness of the benefits of donor milk over infant formula, but at the same time, we need greater awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding or even a mother’s own pumped breastmilk over donor milk, and I worry that in the media excitement over donor milk, that message gets lost.

Best for Babes believes that parents should be able to make an informed decision, and deserve greater access to donor milk whether through milk banks or through informal but informed milk sharing.  We have routinely helped raise awareness of both HMBANA, milkshare.com, and Eats on Feets (which has now split into two groups, Eats on Feets and Human Milk for Human Babies*).  However, the risks of informal milk sharing should not be minimized, and there is more than meets the eye–it’s not just the potential risk of contamination for a baby or mother (by the way, Salma Hayek was at risk for HIV contamination from the baby she nursed in Sierra Leone, unless they screened the baby before hand).  The major problem I see is that, even though the risks of intelligent and informed milk sharing are small relative to the risks of infant formula, it would only take one well-publicized case of milk sharing gone wrong to do tremendous damage to the entire breastfeeding and donor milk cause.   This does not mean we think Human Milk Banks or milk-sharing should cease, on the contrary:  we think they are incrediby important, but need to be prepared with a strategy if negative publicity does hit.

Similac was forced to issue a recall after beetle parts were found in powdered infant formula. Parents were really bugged by the lack of quality control and frustrated over not being able to find uncontaminated formula . . .
So, Similac's powerful marketing team decided to issue a coupon. Nice way to heap WHO-code violation on top of WHO-code violation, Abbott.

Unlike the formula companies, which can spend thousands on a sophisticated PR campaign following the contamination of formula with beetle parts, breastfeeding and donor milk has no PR budget at all.   We all know that it’s sensationalist news that grabs the public attention, not relative risk  (which is why we are more scared of shark attacks than pneumonia, and the rare shark attack gets far more media play).  In the event of any accidental donor milk contamination, all of the good done by informal donor milk sharing could easily be overshadowed by negative publicity–and the breastfeeding community does not have the funds to handle negative media fall out.   We applaud the grass roots efforts of all of the donor milk groups, but think they could benefit from organizational structure and fundraising, as well as a solid marketing and PR plan.  The recent, bitter scuffling among rival groups Eats on Feets and Human Milk for Human Babies also doesn’t help the donor milk image:  there seems to be a lot of eye-rolling and griping going around.**

Finally, there’s a hidden problem with hosting milk sharing groups on Facebook, as a colleague pointed out to me:  while Facebook is a great tool and has enabled the exponential growth of milk sharing, Facebook is also capricious, yanking pages like the Leaky Boob willy-nilly, a practice which could strand mothers and babies in need and damage the image and brand of donor milk. 

So, while I am thrilled that donor milk is in the spotlight, it would be even better if it led to significant, systemic changes that would benefit all mothers and babies, whether they can breastfeed or not.   We need to leverage this media attention into a fundraising gala for milk banks, who operate on a shoestring budget to help premature and compromised babies, firstly, but could grow to help more babies.  Help for Haiti raised $57 million . . . surely breastfeeding education and protection, providing the foundation of human health, and the best defense in a disaster, deserve a drop of these funds!   We need disaster relief agencies to advance consistent and immediate* breastfeeding protection messages in their “how you can help” campaigns following emergencies such as Haiti and Japan, and take a strong stand against violations of the WHO code and aggressive formula marketing.  We need better health care for breastfeeding mothers, from prenatal care to baby-friendly hospitals to insured post-natal visits by an IBCLC.  We need  less social stigma against the baby on the boob, in public, so moms don’t feel ostracized and embarrassed–no mother can put her busy, multi-tasking life on hold for months or years so she can always meet the approval of the squeamish by breastfeeding in private.  We need a paid maternity leave policy, which, unlike donor milk, probably no pump company will advocate for, because it would hurt their sales . . . but it is in the best interest of our mothers, our families, our employers, our insurance companies, and our global competitiveness.  

If donor milk can help level the playing field for all breastfeeding mothers, then it will have truly shown itself to be the milk of human kindness.

*Editor’s correction 4.19.11   **Editor’s correction 4.28.11

28 thoughts on “Will donor milk save or sink breastfeeding?

  1. I think that it would be a great and wonderful thing if the milkbanks could handle 2 sets of milk (or more) – one set that’s screened and preemie acceptable (no drugs, under 1 year of age etc) – And a second set, BF’ing safe drugs (things like advil, safe antibiotics etc) and maybe under 18mo of age so that the preemies can get the really “clean” (not the best word but you get the idea) liquid gold, but then the moms who don’t want to use formula and need the donor milk for whatever reason, can have access to safe milk at a price that isn’t anymore than what formula would cost. Does that make sense? I’ve thought about donating, but b/c I take advil regularly i’m not allowed. And while I could stop the advil now for a while, i only have 1.5 mo until i’m disqualified anyway and don’t think I could pump enough extra with out depriving my daughter to be able to donate. So informal sharing to help a local mom is the best option…


  2. In regards to a paid maternity leave policy, I just wanted to say that I think the U.S. should at least allow women protection to stay home with their babies for more than 90 days UNPAID! Under the Family Medical Leave Act women in the U.S. are only allowed a maximum of 90 days UNPAID leave following the birth of their child. I want to see this changed! I don’t just want our government to make it easier and more protected for women to pump on the job (which is great and all), because feeding your baby at the breast is the best way to ensure exclusive breastfeeding success. I think it is shameful that women are not allowed to stay home with their babies for longer than 3 months, without fear of losing their jobs, even when they are UNPAID for the time they take off.


      1. it is up to *everyone* to demand it. The USBC has no more power over making legislation happen than anyone else. This is something every one of us needs to demand of our elected representatives. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. And certainly don’t depend in the USBC.


  3. Don’t forget about Human Milk 4 Human Babies. I’ve donated over 6 gallons (and counting!) of breastmilk to a wonderful mother and baby in need, with whom I connected through HM4HB. I’m one of the hundreds who responded to the call for stories for the Surgeon General. I was heartbroken when my fourth baby refused the breast at less than 4 weeks old after I was threatened by our ped if I refused to supplement. I exclusively pump for her now, and I thank God every day that I’ve been blessed with more than enough. My first thought was to donate to a milk bank, but none responded to my (many) inquiries. I was thrilled with I found HM4HB. Not only am I sharing my abundance, but I’m sharing some of the responsibility for nourishing another child, which has been a tremendous help in healing from the loss of our second twin.


    1. Wow. You are amazing. Kudos on donating so much milk and on persisting despite the booby traps! I am so sorry for your loss and am so inspired by you.


  4. Thanks for this article!! Nice read. I really understand the concern. I think however that the more moms share breastmilk, the more milk there will be. I am not worried about this at all! Of course moms will give milk to milk banks for premie babies.
    Eats On Feets also has an off FB presence in the form of a website and a forum so that no mom needs to fall through the cracks if something were to happen to FB.
    I hope too that community milk sharing will mobilize donor milk across the board. It does however include acknowledging the fact that moms are doing this and want to do this. Community based milk can be instrumental in emergency situations in fast mobilizing of aid when and where needed. Those moms would already share would pump for any area in a heart beat.
    So much more to say! Maybe later.


    1. It is a very good thing that “moms are doing this and want to do this,” because it is so important that moms have other options besides infant formula! We love to see moms be empowered to help themselves and other moms. Hopefully , this will translate into action to bring about some of the systemic changes I mentioned.


  5. Remember: Human Milk 4 Human Babies Global Network is also a place for informed human milk donation via Facebook. 🙂 Please look up find them on Facebook and help some babies get some milk. 🙂


  6. I’d just like to comment on the donor milk in emergencies issue. You state that you thought that the donation of breastmilk from the US to Haiti was wrongly criticised. Why do you think that this is the case?? The publicity associated with the donation caused an incredible amount of difficulty for people working in Haiti to protect mothers and babies. Expressed breastmilk has nearly all of the same issues as donated infant formula or milk powder and then some additional ones on top. Aid workers and aid organisations were getting inundated with calls from women wanting to donate their milk. It caused chaos! And the publicity associated with this donation did not result in Save the Children doing infant feeding work in Haiti. SC has been involved in infant feeding in emergencies since the 1990s in the Balkan crisis. They are an extremely active member of the Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies Core Group. By the time the publicity about the donation of banked donor milk came about SC as well as UNICEF, Concern, Care and Action Against Hunger were all doing infant feeding work in Haiti.
    It’s great that people have got the message that breastfeeding is important in emergencies but donor human milk will rarely be a part of an appropriate emergency response.


    1. I can understand that being inundated by calls from women wanting to donate their milk could cause disruption, confusion, and annoyance for aid workers and organizations in the short term. In my opinion, however, the long-term benefits of increased awareness of donor milk and most importantly, an improved public perception and appreciation for the value of breastfeeding in the mainstream and among the masses, outweighs the short-term chaos. Sure, it was messy, and maybe the initial call for donor milk could have been handled differently. But it is also too easy for the big relief organizations which have vast power, funds and sophisticated marketing machines to criticize the tiny breastfeeding organizations! Those calls from moms wanting to donate milk, as annoying as they may have been, als o served an important purpose by showing the big relief organizations that breastfeeding mothers have a voice; increased publicity about donor milk and breastfeeding can help put pressure on the big relief organizations to include protection of breastfeeding and other infant feeding protocol IMMEDIATELY in their post-emergency/disaster PR campaigns and messages. After the melamine crisis in China, not one powerful, mainstream health organization called for a renewed commitment to increasing breastfeeding rates in China, and/or demanded that formula companies stop aggressively marketing their products to vulnerable mothers, which inarguably contributed to so many unnecessary deaths. WHO issued a lukewarm statement so long after the news broke that it made barely a ripple. In the immediate aftermath of the Haiti disaster, because there were no clear, consistent messages from the big relief agencies, well-meaning individuals and organizations conducted massive drives and fundraisers for infant formula donations, and the infant formula companies benefited from the video coverage of cases of formula on the runway. (No matter that they couldn’t actually be delivered due to shattered infrastructure, the PR benefit had already been reaped by the formula companies).
      As for Save the Children, I am a big fan of the organization (and a personal donor), and have changed my statement above so as to not imply that their breastfeeding protection efforts were launched in reaction to donor milk publicity. However, I would not be surprised if it influenced the degree to which they publicized those efforts!
      Although progress has been made, I do not think that people have fully gotten the message that breastfeeding is important in emergencies. I hope that the increased positive publicity about donor milk and breastfeeding can put pressure on other large relief organizations to be more proactive in their PR and message campaigns. It is not enough for these large organizations to be active members of the IYCFE Core Group and to do the right thing on the ground, they also need to use their marketing clout to advance the message that every day and in emergencies, breastfeeding saves lives. I know you will agree with me that they need to be outspoken about the risks of infant formula and put pressure on formula companies to stop aggressively marketing their products. Health organizations need to decline financial and product donations from formula companies as it is a direct conflict of interest. (Partners in Health, for example, which has been working in Haiti for 20 years and raised huge amounts of money following the disaster, is partnered with Abbott, which in my opinion is extremely unethical.) This simply won’t happen without increased media coverage and consumer demand.
      Finally, I don’t agree that donor human milk will rarely be part of an appropriate emergency response. Infant formula has been in the spotlight and elevated its brand after every disaster (after Japan, the American Red Cross used a bottle-feeding image in advertisements), surely we don’t want to deprive donor milk of the same opportunity? If donor milk were available at every medical facility, or was coordinated like Eats on Feets or HM4HB does, then it would be available in cases where formula is commonly used. In my opinion, that would be far preferable. It may take shipping donor milk half way around the world a few times and getting great publicity for it to bring localized donor milk about. I know that shipping donor milk long distances is not practical or feasible on a larger scale, but am still glad for the media coverage during the Haiti crisis because it acted as a catalyst!
      Karleen, I appreciate your great and acclaimed expertise in this issue—I am coming to this not as a breastfeeding expert but from the vantage of having a background in PR, social marketing and social entrepreneurship. I would be happy to discuss further, you can reach me at Bettina@bestforbabes.org.


      1. I agree completely with Karleen and disagree just as completely with you Bettina. This is an area in which Karleen in an unparalleled expert. Once again I find your approach naive and based more in theories applicable to selling laundry detergent than advocating for public health policy and practice,


  7. Hi there! 🙂

    I just wanted to point out that Human Milk 4 Human Babies has pages for over 40 countries, all fifty states in the United States (including the colony of Puerto Rico!), all Canadian provinces and territories, and all Australian states, too! It is a HUGE, truly worldwide network that has helped hundreds of babies, probably moreso than any other milksharing community to date (I say this as a recipient who has used HM4HB, EoF, and MilkShare — I found the most help through HM4HB!) Please mention this! 🙂 Here is the list of the countries HM4HB represents: http://hm4hb.com/communities.html

    Thank you!


  8. Great article, Bettina, you raise important points worth considering and discussing.

    I have a couple of observations. (One is that I like how transparent your editing corrections are!)

    —-if just one baby dies… —-
    When milk banks struggled to emerge from the scorched earth policies of the early AIDS-era, one of the comments I heard often was the idea that milk banks would forever close if *just one baby* got ill, died, from a donor milk. Not to mention the negative light that would cast on all breastfeeding. It persists to this day and is one reason I believe so few of our milk banks have re-established – the fear of that one baby’s death has overshadowed the reality that hundreds, HUNDREDS of babies die from NEC each year in NICUs. I recall one neonatologist telling me a decade or so ago that we’d never see a milk bank in my city, even with all the modern pasteurization and screening methods. Prions, he said, that was the next big thing. We’re still waiting where I live for our milk bank. How many preventable deaths have there been in the 27 years since our milk bank closed? How many milk-transmitted prion deaths have there been?

    And so now it’s naively publicized milk-sharing that is running this risk of destroying it all and sending us back to the dark ages of formula in every bassinet and a bottle in every baby’s mouth.

    Most recently in France, quelle horreur, milk bank officials had to scramble to assure the public the risk of contamination from Hep B was very, very low low after a batch of milk from a Hep B+ mother was inadvertently distributed to a hundred-odd babies. They hastened to tell the good news – the mother’s own baby didn’t even contract HepB. Quelle surprise! The CDC says Hepatitis B nor C have ever been found to be transmitted by breastmilk. A difficult message to manage while, almost in the same breath, insisting that informal milk sharing is dangerous and, why, possibly even illegal, due to the risk of the transmission of disease…like Hep B. Of course in that message we are meant to understand milk banks are the only place to obtain milk safely.

    That’s one reason milk banks are concerned about informal milk sharing – they’re worried that if that one baby gets ill, or dies, well, then, let’s pull the plug, all their good work will go down the drain. They can’t afford the time and effort it would take after that one hypothetical death to convince doctors and families of the safety of pasteurized and screened donor milk. Which is my next point.

    —breastfeeding and donor milk has no pr budget—

    While it’s true that breastfeeding advocates have long had the disadvantage of a lack of deep pockets to fund expensive marketing and public relations campaigns, it’s also true that big budget, multimedia campaigns have frequently failed to met the mark. What have the variations on “Breast is Best” cost us? Thank goodness for Dianne Weissinger and the folks who used word of mouth, reprinted her articles and then used the Internet to help create an explosion of deputized, or should I say “Weissingerized” language cops who don’t hesitate to identify and correct damaging campaigns and the language they use.

    What we’re really talking about here is finding the right message and then managing it properly, not always easy even with the biggest of budgets and an army of marketing professionals. Ask anyone who works in the field of communication in any public health environment.

    The good news is the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has declared their 2011 theme, “Talk to Me” – the theme deals with communication at various levels and between various sectors.

    And that leads me to my third point.

    —What has Haiti got to do with this anyway?—

    It’s possible this increase in interest in milk banking and milk sharing in 2010 has its roots in the call to donate milk to Haiti, a muddled message that spread like wildfire through social and mainstream media. It’s also possible that moms have simply tuned in social media while tuning out our mainstream media friends, who have little to offer anyway with budgets so small they barely have enough reporters to cover two fires at once. You can light a match to just about any story fuelled by passionate moms on the Internet and it’ll spread like wildfire.

    The real story in Haiti got lost on the ground. Just about every NGO in Haiti has money and a staff of professionals communicating their efforts and energies for the folks back home, who keep things going with their donations. But not the story of milk-sharing. Did we hear about the field hospital staff desperately seeking wet-nurses? The local language radio campaigns that publicized the tents set up to provide shelter and support for birthing and breastfeeding women? What about the real story behind the call to ship breastmilk to Haiti – it started when an HMCS Comfort staffer knew soldier moms who were pumping and dumping their milk and offered to use it in the ship’s NICU instead.

    And my favourite, from a hospital just across the border in the Dominican Republic:

    “For now, a group of Dominican women are ensuring that the babies in the
    ward have adequate food. A lot of infant children have arrived at the
    hospital without their parents. They need mother¹s milk to continue to
    live,” said Dr. Quezada. “We currently have some Dominican mothers who have
    donated their milk to feed these infants. This is a gesture of a generosity
    and solidarity.” http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/haiti_52557.html

    You can see here UNICEF pumping it out – and no one was picking it up. No one wants to tell the real stories of milksharing in Haiti – mothers on the ground saving babies right there, with their own milk.

    I’d like to think that’s the real story of 2010-2011 – the dawn of an era where donor milk, shared milk, breastfeeding, all of it, an era where *human milk* becomes ubiquitous, common, normal … not valued, not rare, not best. Not needing to be husbanded and protected. Where it just is.

    If we want to get there, we have to protect when protecting is needed, support where support is needed. And we have to step back, when stepping back is needed.

    Let the mothers with milk decide if and when sharing is needed. And let those mothers tell their stories.

    If it were up to the mothers, we’d have a milk bank in every NICU, on every maternity ward, and I’m convinced mik sharing would be as common as popping next door to borrow an egg.

    As a neighbour and friend said to me, “when breastfeeding is going well and you have lots of milk, it’s such an easy gift to give.”

    — Jodine Chase
    Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
    Long-time breastfeeding advocate who has been known to contribute volunteer public relations support to various causes from time to time


    1. Hi Jodine, thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response. I think we are in basic agreement on a number of fronts, but would like to address some of the points you raised. I can’t do so right now but will get back to you! Just wanted to let you know I appreciated your comment.


    2. Hi Jodine, I have a bit more time to respond, sorry I got waylaid by holiday plans and the latest Facebook deletion of breastfeeding photos (groan!). First of all, I absolutely do not think that fear of negative press if “just one baby dies” should discourage milk banks from opening or donor milk groups from operating. And we fully agree that the risks of infant formula far outweigh the risks of donor milk! We are just encouraging all donor milk organizations to have a plan at the ready should there be any negative publicity. One of the reasons we are so excited by all of the donor milk press is that it can help drive the establishment of more milk banks and has clearly contributed to the success of HM4HB and Eats on Feets.

      As far as PR budgets, I was saying that in comparison to the formula companies, breastfeeding organizations do not have nearly the resources for marketing and PR. In the year that the US DHHS launched the “Babies were born to breastfeed” campaign for $3 million, the formula companies nearly doubled their spending to $40 million. So that means that we have to use our dollars much more wisely, and we are in perfect agreement that droning on about “breast is best” is not working (we were Weissingerized 🙂 very early on and in fact Diane heard our presentation at ILCA where we made the case for why breastfeeding needs to be marketed differently, we acknowledged her sitting in the front row!). Yes, finding the right message is challenging with a large budget and an army of PR professionals; it is even more challenging to develop a coordinated message in a grassroots manner among dozens of organizations and an army of breastfeeding advocates, many of whom spring up after enduring booby traps and latch on to the “breast is best” phrase without realizing that it undermines the message.

      With regards to Haiti, I understand your frustration with the media, but think there is progress. Although not all the stories you mention made it into the press, I think many, many more did than ever before, which is encouraging!

      Finally, we share your vision that some day every NICU and maternity ward will have a milk bank (and have IBCLCs on staff so that very few mothers need donor milk). It is indeed a beautiful and easy gift to give and receive, if we can just get the booby traps out of the way!


  9. Wow – there are so many mother’s who are doing amazing things!
    In France I was only aware of donating directly to a milk bank where the milk was provided free of charge to the babies who needed it. I donated 5 gallons before it became too hard for me to pump anymore. I was happy knowing my milk was going to where it was supposed to go and I underwent extensive health screen’s and tests.
    I don’t really understand how it works in the US – I wish they’d give mothers more of an opportunity to get breastfeeding underway and find a system where excess milk could reach those who needed it without being prohibitively expensive. Milk sharing sites, albeit a great idea, do open up the risk of contamination and the spread of illness.


  10. I have been interviewed by several publications including Newsweek on donating human milk. In my comments, I tried to mention the thing that unites us milk donors: the breast pump. Why pump breast milk exclusively? Because a mix of societal, medical and physical “booby traps” prevented me from nursing, so I did the next best thing. This brings the issue back to barriers to breastfeeding in the first place.

    Regarding direct sharing vs. milk banking–when faced with a sudden oversupply, it is not easy for a new mom to understand all the options. I first donated directly through Milkshare and then, after finding time to research, finally found a bank willing to receive my milk through the mail–Mothers’ Milk Bank of Austin, TX–since there was no bank near me.


  11. When our son was born 10 weeks early, his first food was donor milk. While waiting for my milk to come in, I felt so much better knowing he was not getting formula, but getting the next best thing to my own milk. I’m so glad that we had this option, and I am going to be donating milk as soon as I can. I informally shared milk with my sister in law when her twins were young. She had many issues with trying to breast feed and ended up using formula. I am always a bit disgusted when the nursing mother’s bag that I get from the hospital has a small can of formula in it. The gift of donating expressed milk is such a blessing to those who receive it! Kudos to all the pumping moms out there who take the time to pump to donate or donate their stash!


  12. Bettina,
    Thank you for a thoughtful, well written article that raises many important points. The recent publicity milk sharing and milk banking have received has indeed contributed to the public understanding of the importance of HUMAN MILK for babies and that this is an important public health issue for families and the medical community. However, the message that BREASTFEEDING is important has not come through as strongly. We need workplace and other public policies and a society that support breastfeeding as the norm, so that donor milk will become the bridge to mother’s fully nursing their own babies or for use in extenuating circumstances that is was meant to be.
    Let’s take a moment to notice that we have come a long way in the last few years. Congratulations to all who have been part of it! Our next challenge – making breastfeeding, not human milk feeding, the norm.

    Naomi Bar-Yam
    Executive Director, Mothers’ Milk Bank of New England


    1. Thanks Naomi, and kudos on all the great work you have done. I believe that the increased publicity about donor milk WILL help drive the message that breastfeeding is critical. Those workplace and public policies, as well as a society that embraces (not just tolerates) breastfeeding will come about through consumer-driven demand, and the media has a huge role in acting as a catalyst to spur that demand! We believe that the process is underway. Thanks again for your kind words and for stopping by to comment.


  13. I have to wonder if the milk shortage risk has more to do with how the milk banks themselves go about gathering milk? If it is an easy process, pass a physical, drug test, ect… then drop off your milk and go then I don’t think it would be a real issue. However if its a whole ordeal, and time consuming I could see why mothers would be more put off at the idea of donating to them as oppose to other mothers in need.


  14. I hear advocacy for donor milk all the time. The attitude is so cavalier it is sad. I am a breast cancer survivor. I had a double mastectomy at age 32. With my last child many well meaning people suggested donor milk from milk banks or informal milk sharing even from anonymous sources. I chose to FF not just because of fear of diseases but because of my religious beliefs. I am Muslim and in my faith the BF relationship is considered very sacred. It is the religious duty of a mother to BF if able, but if it will cause her hardship or unable to a wetnurse or formula is acceptable. The thing with wetnurses (which in most Muslim nations are close relatives or friends) is that by nursing that child she and her children become kin. That means even if no biological connection exists her children could not marry mine. It would be considered incest, hence milk banks such as you advocate or milk sharing would be forbidden in my religion. I could not have taken milk, screened or not without knowing who the donor was and that the source could be multiple donors would make it even more forbidden. It would be impossible to know all the sources and would make it impossible for me to know that any young man who married my daughter was permissible for sure. How would she have known for sure she was not in an incestuous union? Sadly I find many BF advocacy groups are ignorant on the concept I have described which is called Radha. If I had a sister or close friend who could have nursed or offered me milk for my child I would have considered taking it, with the understanding that our children would be siblings. So formula was the simplest and best option for my family. BF can create a bond, but in Islam it can also be the building bridge of family ties that otherwise would not exist.I would suggest to not advocate milk sharing or milk banks lightly without being aware of different religious and cultural beliefs on the matter.


    1. Thank you Bree for sharing this important information! It is very important that we consider cultural factors with regards to breastfeeding and donor milk and your comment serves to educate us and our readers. Thanks again!


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