The sharing of breast milk is not a new concept. Years ago wet nurses were common practice and women have long breastfed babies for other mothers who are unable to do so.
But social media has made it easier for mums to provide breast milk for those who need it and as such breast milk sharing sites are springing up all over the Internet.
One such page is called Human Milk for Human Babies UK, which facilitates breast milk exchanges between mums who have surplus breast milk and those who need it.
The BBC reports that likes for the page have increased fivefold to almost 18,000 in the past five years alone.
That rise is echoed in recent research from parenting site Netmums which revealed that almost half (44%) of breastfeeding mothers in Britain would consider sharing their milk with other parents online, while two per cent have already done so.
The poll of 2,012 mums also found that one in 50 breastfeeding mothers already use free milk-sharing websites to connect with parents who cannot breastfeed.
Milk sharing services match mums with milk to give away to families in their local area who need it for their baby. Mothers can specify if they want milk from a vegetarian, vegan, or someone close to their own child¹s age, meaning the donated milk is as close as possible to how their own milk would be.
Celebrity backers include Hollywood actress Alicia Silverstone, who recently set up her own milk sharing service Kind Mama.
A third of mums donating milk through milk sharing said they decided to take part to help a family in their hour of need. A further 14 per cent were producing more milk than their own baby needed and four per cent had been helped previously by milk sharing and wanted to give back. One in 11 even enjoyed nursing so much they carried out donating after stopping feeding their own baby.
Commenting on the e-sharing breast milk trend Netmums editor Anne-Marie O’Leary said: “In a world where almost everything is now commercialised, it’s wonderful to see families coming together to help and support each other for free. Everyone involved – from the mums donating milk to those running the sites – gives their time and effort without charge to ensure babies get a healthy start in life. The trend may be new but it’s already touching people’s lives and making a significant difference, which will last the families it helps forever.”
But while many mums support the idea of milk-sharing sites, there are some concerns about safety and hygiene of the process.
The BBC reports that the Department of Health is now coming under pressure to issue more extensive guidance to any mums acting outside of NHS supervision, with some experts warning that the unregulated practice could spread infection and viruses such as HIV and hepatitis.
Milk sharing Facebook sites do offer guidance for anyone considering using them, urging people to discuss medications, alcohol or drug use and suggesting they use a health care provider for further testing.
But to be really safe experts are encouraging women utilise the services of milk banks which offer proper screening and regulation.
According to the NHS, human milkbanking is a service which collects, screens, processes and dispenses human milk donated by nursing mothers. Because the milk is dispensed to recipients, who are not related to the donor, every precaution is taken to provide a safe product.
According to the site, donor mothers undergo health and lifestyle screening, and blood tests for HIV, Hep B&C, Syphilis and HTLV. Milk is expressed hygienically in the donor’s home, frozen and collected regularly by milkbank staff. Milk is tested. Bottles with bacteria above recommended safe levels are discarded.
The use of milk banks also seems to be a growing trend. Five per cent of families surveyed by Netmums said they had received milk from a hospital milk bank. One in 11 breastfeeding mums are now considering donating to their local hospital milk bank, while 2.5 per cent have already donated.
But there are now calls to increase the funding for milk banks. Alison Thewliss, the SNP politician who chairs the all-party parliamentary group for infant feeding, believes the Department of Health should take overall control of the breast milk donor services in England.
“At the moment, milk banks are often underfunded and running as a project of individual hospitals,” she told BBC.
“I would like to see the UK government work with the UK Association of Milk Banks to invest in services to allow those wishing to donate breast milk to be able to do so locally in a safe and regulated way, and for those requiring breast milk for their babies to be able to access it easily”.
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