Sourcing Human Milk
By Emma Pickett IBCLC. Lactation consultant and Breastfeeding Counsellor
Audience: Families with solely male parents or female parents who have not given birth nor are interested in induced lactation.
Before a baby arrives, there are a hundred different decisions that can easily seem overwhelming. Once you have navigated the path to finally knowing a baby is coming, the world is a blur of nursery furniture, travel systems, names and talking to friends and family.
The decision of how you are going to feed your baby may seem one that has already been made for you by circumstance. It’ll surely be the stuff that comes in the can off the shelf in that supermarket.
Don’t feel that is necessarily the case.
While it may be unrealistic to assume your baby will receive human milk exclusively, it is now a possibility that they can receive breast milk every day for as long as you want and some families do manage to achieve exclusive breast milk feeding.
Imagine you are shopping in that supermarket and one particular can of milk is head and shoulders above the rest. It has been proven over decades by thousands of peer-reviewed research scientists to lower your baby’s chances of gastro-intestinal infections, respiratory infections, urinary tract infections, ear infections, allergic disease (eczema, asthma and wheezing), type 1 and 2 diabetes, obesity, childhood leukaemia and cot death.
And it’s dose related. Even if you can’t ONLY feed the milk from that can, giving SOME of it will decrease risk of many conditions and diseases.
Why wouldn’t you bother? Especially as it’s the can that’s free.
It contains cells which attack and kill cancer cells. It contains stem cells. It contains white blood cells and tailored components that attack bacteria and viruses in the local environment. It contains human fats and proteins that aid brain development at a crucial time.
And it’s never been easier for non-lactating parents to get hold of some.
The boom of social networking sites alongside an increased awareness of the benefits of breastmilk and the development of electric breast pumps has made this is a time of golden opportunity.
Go onto Facebook and meet the community at HM4HB (Human Milk 4 Human Babies) and you’ll read posts like the following:
“Hi, I’m Maria. I live in Manchester and I’ve got a freezer stash of around 8 litres of milk in mainly 4oz bags. I’m a non-smoker and take no medication. Tomorrow I’m visiting my sister in Oxford. Anyone in that direction interested?”
“Hi. We’re Mark and Ash. We have a 2 month old and we’re looking for regular milk donors in the North London area.”
“Hello. We’re expecting our newborn in the next 2 weeks and we’d love to make connections with donor mums in the Bristol area.”
HM4HB connects people. This is informal milk banking or milk donation. Another site which provides the same service is ‘Eats on Feets’.
You may feel uncomfortable about accepting donor milk from people you don’t know. Human milk can transmit viruses such as HIV. However many donors are happy to be tested or to share recent results from testing. Some informal donors will recently have been formally donating milk to hospital milk banks and will have been tested fully. Both sites also explain how it is possible to pasteurise human milk in your home.
You may feel a slight ‘ick’ factor. Human milk doesn’t behave quite like cow’s milk. It won’t be homogenised so the fat layers will separate and require mixing back together. It may be a slightly different colour or smell unfamiliar. You may quickly feel that is a small price to pay for the benefits it can give. And formula contains milk from a cow you are unlikely to have met along with other precious items like ground fish eyes. Ick is very much a cultural thing!
If you are using a surrogate, giving some breastmilk is now commonly part of the discussion. Some surrogates are happy to be an on-going donor (though this is obviously trickier with international arrangements). We know there are also benefits to a baby just receiving a very small quantity of the first milk – known as colostrum. A birth mother makes colostrum from pregnancy. Some birth mothers will express small quantities of colostrum in late pregnancy which can then be given in a baby’s first few hours. Or they will be able to provide colostrum immediately after birth. Colostrum is different from mature breastmilk. It is far richer in immunological properties and coats the baby’s intestines with a unique combination that protects against pathogens and allergens. Those early colostrum feeds can be particularly valuable, whatever happens next.
Sourcing donor breastmilk can be hard work and you may have to justify your decision to others. You may also be surrounded by other parents who haven’t chosen to do so and you need to feel confident about your decision. Don’t take my word for it. Take some time to read the research for yourself: http://www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/News-and-Research/Research/Breastfeeding-research---An-overview/
or join the milk banking organisations and ask questions and read their resources.
And what we lactation consultants say to all parents is especially true here, every drop is precious. If you are only able to give some breastmilk or relatively small quantities – it does make a difference. In the end the decision of how we feed our babies is a complex one and is made for many different reasons. But don’t feel the choice of human milk is one that you don’t have.
UNICEF also provides leaflets and information on safe bottle-feeding and the guidelines for preparing infant formula. You can find them here: http://www.unicef.org.uk/BabyFriendly/Parents/Resources/Resources-for-parents/