Sunday, February 6, 2011

Milk Sharing: Good or Bad?

There is no question in my mind, and in most people's minds: Breastmilk is better for babies than formula. Human breastmilk is specifically designed to meet the needs of human infants. There is no changing that fact. As "good" as formula has become in the last 50 years, it still has only a fraction of the ingredients that are found in breastmilk, and none of the live cells and antibodies found in breastmilk.

Clearly I am a strong proponent of breastfeeding and feel that breastmilk is the best food for human infants. Milk sharing is big in the news right now. Even the mainstream media has picked up on the buzz about milk sharing websites such as Eats On Feets and Milk Share. So why am I feeling a little it uncomfortable about the huge rise in popularity of milk sharing?

I am not uncomfortable about the risks of milk sharing. I believe that, in most cases, the risks of formula are greater than the risks of donated milk. Nancy Mohrbacher has an excellent article on this: Should Milk Sharing Among Mothers Be Encouraged?

I'm not against moms sharing milk. In fact, have used donor milk (from friends) with two of my babies. I was forced to "pump and dump" for 48 hours due to a less than ideal choice on medication by an ER doctor when my son was only 2 1/2 months old and exclusively breastfed. I had some milk in the freezer, but it wasn't quite enough to make it through. Not wanting to compromise his virgin gut, I requested some milk from a couple of friends who were currently breastfeeding. My adopted baby was on formula while I was working to bring in a milk supply for her, and I gladly accepted some donations of milk from two friends to replace some of the formula.

In some of the stories I have read about moms who have used donor milk, I got the feeling that it was "okay" to "give up" on breastfeeding, because they would be able to get donor milk for their baby. Is donor milk the new "formula"? This is a concern with the explosion in milk sharing. My concern is that moms will give up too easily thinking that donor milk is "just as good". What have moms been told for years when breastfeeding got hard? "It's okay, formula is just fine." Will the new mantra become, "I'ts okay, he will still get breast milk, and that's just as good."?

Our culture seems to sing the praises of "breast milk" more than "breast feeding". Breastmilk IS the best food for babies, but it is not the best thing for babies, that is breastfeeding. When you look at the feeding recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) you will find that the first choice for infant feeding is breastfeeding. If that is not possible the choices are:
  • “The second choice is the mother's own milk expressed and given to the infant in some way.
  • The third choice is the milk of another human mother.
  • The fourth and last choice is artificial baby milk (infant formula)”

So, while donor milk is certainly better than formula, it is still pretty far down the list, just one above formula. With the wide availability of donor breastmilk, all we have is another widely available substitute for breastfeeding. While most infants will do just fine on commercial formula (you don't have to go far to hear "My baby was formula fed and he is fine!"), there are babies, who for a variety of reasons, really need human breastmilk in order to grow and thrive.

Breast milk feeding does NOT have the same benefits as breastfeeding, as I talked about in my post It's Not About the Milk. Even the milk itself is not as beneficial. For example, breast milk has the highest level of antibodies when baby takes it directly from the breast, and is second-best when it is freshly pumped. The mother's body actually responds to her baby’s saliva to make milk that is just right for him. If baby is exposed to something that he needs antibodies for, this is how the mother's body “learns” to make those antibodies for him. The longer the milk is stored, the more of these antibodies are deactivated. Freezing destroys even more antibodies. (Frozen milk still provides excellent nutrition and protection for your baby, just not as good as directly from the breast or freshly pumped.)

What is needed much more than another substitute is to help the mothers who want to breastfeed to be successful. The reality is, most of the mothers who "can't" breastfeed could be successful with the right information and support. The numbers just don't work out for moms who "need" to supplement. According to the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) as of 2007, only 33% of breastfed babies are breastfed exclusively, without supplements, at three months old. This is not hard to believe when you find out that, even though only a small percentage of newborn babies have a true medical need for supplements in the first few days, currently approximately 50% of newborns born in California are getting formula supplements in the first days of life in the hospital. Moms who want to breastfeed exclusively are being set up to fail.

This issue of milk sharing is of particular interest to me. As I said before, I have given two of my babies donated milk. I have also been in the situation of being handed a newborn baby when I had no milk of my own to give. As I struggled to induce lactation I came to a conclusion: Given the choice I would rather "breastfeed" my baby with formula, than bottle feed my baby with breastmilk. Why? Bottle feeding is a feeding method, breastfeeding is a relationship.

Bottom line, my biggest concern is that all of the hype about the benefits of milk sharing will draw the attention even closer to the "breast MILK" is best idea, and away from the "breast FEEDING" is best view.

What do you think?