In the neonatal intensive care unit, human milk is preferred food for preterm and very preterm infants. For very premature infants (less than 30 weeks), it is well established that human milk reduces the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a bacterial infection of the intestines with devasting consequences, and is associated with improved growth, cognitive development, and survival compared to infants receiving formula. There’s just one problem: donor milk, used when an premature infant’s mother’s own milk (MOM) is not available, generally consists of pooled and pasteurized milk from several donors. Donor milk – the second best food for premature infants after milk from the infant’s own mother – is suddenly missing one OR MORE of the factors in human milk that is thought to protect against NEC and other gastrointestinal infections. But, what would happen if you incubated donor milk with unpasteurized milk, from the infant’s own mother?
From where I’m standing, the regulation of anonymous online milk sales is a red herring. Our efforts and resources should be poured into making breastfeeding an attainable reality for all mothers, not just the privileged few. Critically ill infants need human milk to survive and thrive, but all infants in need should have access to human milk. If regulation or policy can help to level the playing field so that increased breastfeeding and access to safe donor milk may become a reality, then that’s a conversation worth having. But, I would rather get busy tearing down barriers that stand in the way of mothers breastfeeding their own babies and figuring out ways of delivering breast milk from healthy donors, wherever and whenever it is needed.
Milk sharing often grows out of the relationships formed within a community of breastfeeding mothers, and in return, the act of sharing milk strengthens these relationships.
Heather’s story teaches us that milk sharing is not simply about nourishing babies – sometimes it’s about mothers caring for other mothers, too.