September 24 – October 1 is the first World Milksharing Week. I really wanted to celebrate this by hosting a blog carnival on the topic, but I didn’t get that organized in time. Maybe next year. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the first-ever Milksharing Picnic in Grant Park this Friday. If you’re in Atlanta, especially if you’re intown, you should come.
I’m ashamed to admit that despite the huge oversupply I had for at least the first year of my daughter’s life, I never donated milk. At the time, I didn’t know the option existed. By the time I discovered milk banks, she was older than six months and I couldn’t donate to a milk bank, and by the time I discovered private donating, the thought of getting a pump and learning how to do all that stuff just seemed like more work than it was worth. However, I am really hoping to donate this time. I’m anticipating an equally large oversupply, and I hate for all that milk to go to waste.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about donating milk as I prepare for this next baby. I’m not sure whether I’m going to buy or borrow a pump or go through all the testing and get one free from a milk bank. I’m not sure whether I’m going to have the guts to learn to pump when it will probably increase my already over-abundant supply. But I guess having a new baby wouldn’t be any fun without learning a new skill, right? I think right now I’m thinking about donating the way many first-time moms think about breastfeeding: I don’t know if I’ll succeed at it, but I hope to try. I’ll give it a shot and see how long I can make it work.
I’m not sure how much success I’ll be able to have with that mindset. So as part of my mental preparation, I’d like to suggest that just as there are many “booby traps” that work against breastfeeding in our culture, there are many “booby traps” that work against donating and sharing milk. According to the World Health Organization, the best substitute for nursing at the breast is the mother’s own breast milk, and the next best option is donated milk. But for most families, donated milk isn’t even a consideration. Why is that? Here are some of the reasons I believe milksharing is so rare in our culture.
1. We think breast milk is gross. Yes, it’s a bodily fluid. So is cow milk. But for most people, the idea of someone else’s milk is just too gross.
2. We sexualize breast milk. So the idea of using someone else’s milk feels like infidelity. Again, drinking cow milk doesn’t feel like bestiality, so this feeling really isn’t logical.
3. We prefer science to nature. I could be wrong about this, but I suspect that most mothers considering donated milk would be a lot more concerned to find out as much as possible about the donating mother’s diet than most mothers using formula are to research every ingredient in formula. I realize there is some logic to this: formula has been designed and tested by scientists, while every mother’s milk is different. But it’s still interesting that most parents–not all, I know, but I suspect most–would be a lot more worried about the ingredients in donated milk than is probably warranted. Yes, it’s important for a donating mother to be healthy, and yes, I will get tested as a matter of course before I donate. Yes, diseases are a concern–but I think we tend to err on the side of over-caution in this area. And for most babies, the breastfeeding mother can eat pretty much anything (within reason) without having a negative impact on her milk.
4. It’s semi-illegal to sell breast milk privately. I can see the logic of this, I really can. And there’s certainly something beautiful about donating milk for the good of babies. But let’s be honest. If breastfeeding mothers could make money by sitting at home and doing something they’re doing anyway, there would be a lot more shared breast milk available. If I could make money as a wet nurse, well, I’d be a lot more motivated to share my milk.
And while I know milk banks don’t make any money, it still irks me that they will charge recipients for my milk but not pay me. Really makes you want to bypass the middleman. I know they still need grants and that the money only pays for part of the cost of processing and shipping the milk. But still. Wet nurses are a time-honored tradition. And the first milk banks in the U.S. did pay donors. I’m just sayin’.
5. We aren’t aware of the possibility of sharing milk. Most mothers don’t know they can do this. If they do, they don’t know where to go for resources. Hence World Milksharing Week. So now you know. Can’t say I didn’t tell you.
Resources for Sharing Milk:
Our “local” milk bank (in North Carolina): WakeMed Milk Bank
Local private donation network: Human Milk 4 Human Babies Georgia
Advertising site for buying and selling breast milk (but you didn’t see this here): Only the Breast