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New mothers in need of breast milk are turning to Seattle’s underground milk-sharing network to feed their infants
The benefits of breastfeeding—lowering a child’s risk of certain illnesses, for example—are so well documented that the federal government has a slogan, “Babies Were Born To Be Breastfed,” to promote the practice. Ballard mom Erin Longmoon, who had researched the benefits, needed no convincing. “I’m committed. I want the best for my baby,” she says. Which is why, when her own milk supply dwindled to nothing while nursing her 3-month-old last year, Longmoon searched diligently for an alternative to infant formula. Through a midwife, she learned about milk sharing.
Local mothers unable to breastfeed who prefer human milk for health reasons, or whose infants have special dietary needs (for instance, allergies to infant formula), are increasingly turning to an informal network of breastfeeding women willing to pump extra milk and donate it to babies other than their own. (Adoptive moms are also interested.) Unlike the historical sharing of breast milk—when women nursed others’ babies in need (sometimes for money, as in wet nursing)—today’s sharing happens via pumping, and is “kind of underground,” says Longmoon. She recalls, “Any professional was hesitant to give advice and would say, ‘Just ask your friends.’” So Longmoon took her search to a weekly moms’ group she’d been attending. She was nervous about asking such a big favor, but the response overwhelmed her. “I had about seven moms come up or email me fully willing to share their milk—it was amazing,” she says.
Reasons for donating milk are many, from plain generosity to practicality. Mary Ellen Cunningham of West Seattle, who received milk for her son from 24 donors, says some of those who gave in bulk had had premature babies, and had pumped more milk than the preemies could consume. (Breast milk has a long shelf life in the freezer.) Other donors were new to milk sharing but eager to “pay it forward.”
This maternal round robin doesn’t go unnoticed by lactation professionals. Jeanne Schneider, R.N., an international board-certified lactation consultant and charge nurse at the Postpartum Care Center and Breastfeeding Center at Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland, says she’s heard of a “tremendous amount” of milk sharing in the local community, and she’s not particularly surprised. “Human milk has this unique thing that it gobbles up lots of bacteria and has immune properties. It is pretty amazing.”
But this breast milk booster doesn’t recommend milk sharing. “We cannot put our blessing on it and say it’s 100 percent safe,” she says, reeling off a list of reasons: “HIV, hepatitis-C, cytomegalovirus, bacterial infections...,” all examples of communicable diseases that can be passed through human milk, which, like blood, is living tissue.
Schneider says milk sharers should stick to the stringent guidelines of U.S. milk banks, which have been around since the early 20th century. As at blood banks, donors at milk banks are tested for diseases, restricted (with few exceptions) from most medications and herbal supplements, and further screened for lifestyle choices, alcohol and tobacco use. Donor milk is pasteurized. Though there are no milk banks in Washington (the nearest, in Portland, is just opening), out-of-state facilities will ship it frozen—if you can pay the price. The cost of processing is $3 or more for 1 ounce of milk. At 30 ounces or more a day for a hungry infant, that’s prohibitive for most families (though milk is covered by some health insurance companies).