Milk sharing helps babies grow strong

One Chilliwack mom relies on a Facebook group to connect her with moms willing to donate breast milk for her baby daughter.

When young Chilliwack mom Samantha Brown gave birth seven months ago, she developed a uterus infection, had to be induced into a coma, and was hospitalized for two weeks. She couldn’t produce breast milk after that. For the first few months of daughter Kianna’s life, Brown fed her formula. But Kianna developed an intolerance for it. Ever since, Brown has been on the hunt for breast milk. She frequently posts on a Facebook group called “Human Milk 4 Human Babies,” requesting donations from moms in the Lower Mainland.

The group is part of a global mom-to-mom movement of milk sharing. A mom who has an oversupply of milk will fill up as many bottles as she can, and give them for free to another mom who can’t produce milk.

This keeps babies feeding on highly nutritious natural milk, which acts as a “primer” for babies.

“It’s like a thick coat of latex paint that coats the baby’s gut, and makes it less permeable to disease organisms, bacteria, viruses,” said Sidney Harper, project development nurse for the Baby Friendly Initiative at Fraser Health.

This makes the child stronger in the long run, and less prone to illness. Fraser Health does not recommend using formula, except when breast milk is not available.

“We know that giving these babies donor milk instead of formula will actually be life-saving,” said Harper.

But for moms who can’t breastfeed, regulated donor milk is usually not freely available because of very low supply at the government milk bank, B.C. Women’s Milk Bank. The milk is reserved for the most vulnerable newborns, and only provided for the first few days of life.

This year, the bank has distributed 330 oz to 80 babies in Chilliwack since the Chilliwack depot opened in 2011. The depot has collected 5,800 oz from moms in the community for distribution province-wide. Not all donated milk passes testing.

1,400 oz in Chilliwack to date, thanks to donations to depots across the province, including one locally. Last year, it was only 400 oz. The year before, because of media attention, the bank distributed 4,000 oz.

Another option for a mom in Brown’s situation is milk sharing, but supply is also low among the social networks. Brown received donations from about three different women, but all of it added up to only a couple of weeks worth of food for baby Kianna.

“There’s not a lot of people donating,” she said.

Occasionally, milk is available for purchase from the government bank, at a price of $1.25 per ounce. That’s a high cost when Kianna is at the point where she needs 24-30 oz daily.

A while back, Brown visited a milk bank in Oak Harbour, Washington, where she purchased several months’ worth of breast milk at one-fifth the B.C. price.

As that supply runs low, Brown is again requesting donations on Facebook. Kianna is only seven months old, and will need breast milk for a few months longer. The government recommendation is that moms breastfeed exclusively for a minimum of six months.

But the big difference between an informal network and a regulated milk bank are the health risks. Fraser Health sends all donated milk to a testing facility to check for diseases, such as HIV and syphilis, and the milk gets pasteurized before it is released.

“We would never want to share unpasteurized milk, nor milk that hasn’t been screened,” said Harper. “It would be like giving unscreened blood.”

Brown ensures that her baby drinks safe milk by checking the health history certificate of any mom from whom she accepts milk, a document provided at hospitals to moms who recently had a child.

“That’s the only way I’ll take milk from them,” said Brown.

Milk sharing is not a new idea. People have been doing it through parenting groups, and private social networks, probably for as long as moms have given birth. With social media, there is a surge in milk sharing as it becomes easier for people to connect.

The B.C. chapter of Human Milk 4 Human Babies launched in September 2010, and has no way to track how many moms have connected, or how much milk they have exchanged. The group does not screen moms on the site, but advocates for informed milk sharing. This includes educating about safety techniques, such as flash pasteurization at home.

Volunteer page administrator Alicia Hurd has not heard of a case of someone becoming ill as a result of an exchange through the Facebook group.