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I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend on Facebook (which I realize is just Facebook, but which I suspect is at least partially representative of life in general) of people suddenly becoming experts on subjects they feel like adding their two cents to. The first time I noticed this trend was a few years back when flocks of birds were mysteriously dying, and people suddenly became bird experts in their comments on articles. More recently, I’ve noticed people becoming sudden experts on breastmilk.
In recent days, a story was published, and then repeated by numerous media outlets, on the subject of tainted breastmilk being sold online. It only took a few hours for this subject to blow up my newsfeed. Everywhere I looked, people were posting articles on breastmilk contamination, then spouting off on a subject they clearly knew nothing about. Suddenly everyone had realms of knowledge on issues such as bacteria, disease transmission, breastmilk homogenization and pasteurization, and the age-old debate of breastmilk versus formula. There were exceptions (there are always exceptions), but the general consensus seemed to be that a woman giving another woman’s breastmilk to her child was gross at best and dangerous at worst.
I’m not going to tackle the issue of breastmilk versus formula. My own research gives me plenty of reason to believe that breastmilk is almost always the better option, but women who choose or who feel they have no choice but to choose formula shouldn’t be made to feel defensive about the decision that they make. But for those who do think breastmilk is better, and who, for whatever reason, can’t supply it to their children themselves, my fear is that this sudden expertise and media exposure is going to scare them away from something that is actually pretty awesome: donated milk.
Unlike all the people I’m referencing on Facebook, I would never claim to be an expert on anything, much less an expert on nursing children. But I have enough personal experience in my household to speak at least intelligently on the subject. When my first son was born, our plan was always that he would be exclusively breastfed. Things didn’t work out in that direction. Breastfeeding doesn’t always go as planned. (For something always billed as “natural,” it turns out nursing can be incredibly hard.) So for the first few months, in order to help him gain weight and grow, he was breastfed but also given formula. Then we discovered the brave new world of the online milksharing community. Yes, we discovered this community online. No, the sky didn’t fall when we joined it.
Milksharing and milkselling are two different things. I can’t speak to milkselling, because no one in my house so much as considered it. But milksharing—that is, getting or giving donated milk—is a truly beautiful thing. Women who donate milk aren’t in it for money. They’re in it to help other children. For whatever reason, they have a surplus of breastmilk, and they want to give it to someone who doesn’t have enough. Through online milksharing communities, we were able to find a group of local people, meet them in person, vet them, and determine the quality of the donors we were choosing. These were not nameless, faceless donors through a milk bank. These were real women donating the same milk they were using to keep their own children alive every day. Not only did we get milk from these people, but we actually became friends with them. Some of our closest current friends are people we met this way.
With help from donated milk, my son was able to continue his nursing relationship with his mother, while still getting all the nutrition we wanted him to have. He’s now three years old, strong as a young buck, and guess what? He nursed until he was two! In an incredible turnaround, when my second son was born this year, we actually became the donors ourselves. (I keep saying “us” and “our.” This is all my wife here. She’s the amazing one who’s doing all the hard work. I’ve never had a full-time job that I was able to put as much heart into as she’s put into raising our kids.) To look back on where we were three years ago when my first son was born, and see where we are now with my second son’s situation, is just an awe-inspiring picture. Breastmilk is amazing. It’s amazing that human beings can be kept alive with nothing but breastmilk for the first several months or even years of their lives. To know that people were willing to share this with our family when we needed it, and to know that we are able to share it with others now, is just incredible. With all the crap going on in this world, this kind of thing restores my faith in humanity.
I hope this article inspires at least a few mothers who need milk for their babies to do their research and consider their options (such as the Facebook group, Human Milk 4 Human Babies, at facebook.com/hm4hb). It’s easy to be scared off by the recent articles, as well as the obligatory “Ewwww gross” and “What’s wrong with these people?” comments that go along with them. If you’re in this situation, you may do your homework, and you may determine that milksharing isn’t for you. That’s fine. But my hope is that this puts a human face on what should really be a very human subject. I have two healthy sons, and milksharing has been a part of both their lives.