- The first myth is that informal milk sharing is riskier than infant formula.
- The second myth is that breast milk is a scarce commodity.
The first myth is one I've tackled before in my post on the risks of informal breastmilk sharing versus formula feeding. Today, in honour of World Milksharing Week, I'm going to tackle the second myth.
World Milksharing Week
Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB) is a global milksharing network, a virtual village, comprising thousands of people from over fifty countries. Its mission is to promote the nourishment of babies and children around the world with human milk. It is dedicated to fostering community between local families who have chosen to share breast milk.
Dani Arnold-McKenney, the administrator of a milk sharing network in Southwestern Ontario, explains the way that milk sharing not only nourishes babies, but also creates community:
It's a myth that we are all about anonymous milk drops in parking lots. Our donors and recipients support each other and learn from each other. We've had milk recipients rebuild their own milk supplies and turn around and become donors. I have seen milksharing friendships grow and watched bonds of motherhood bloom between mothers who didn't know each other a mere few weeks before.
September 24 to 30, 2011 is the inaugural annual World Milk Sharing Week. There are numerous events happening this week all over the world and online to celebrate. Do you want to participate? Learn how you can get involved and take action as part of this year's World Milksharing Week.
Is Breast Milk Scarce?
As I mentioned in the introduction, formula companies profit depends on breast milk being scarce. Not every woman is able to make enough breast milk to nourish her babies, either for physical reasons or because she got bad advice or an infection that temporarily impacted her milk supply.
Although I had to pump for my babies, including exclusively pumping for my son who couldn't latch for the first two months and then pumping for both my children after I returned to work, I was lucky that I never really had to worry about my milk supply. I made enough milk for my son (who was a big eater and a big boy) and I made more than enough for my daughter (which meant that I could stop pumping at work months before she stopped getting breastmilk during the day). There was, however, one period when I was pumping for my son and got a horrible case of mastitis. My milk supply plummeted and once my small freezer reserve was used up, I did have to give him some formula. I wish there had been human milk banks or good informal milk sharing networks that I could have turned to at the time to get the additional 6 to 8 ounces of breast milk that I needed per day for the couple of weeks it took me to rebuild my supply. But there wasn't.
In some ways, breastfeeding is like gardening. I grow tomatoes in my garden for part of the year. That means that there are a couple of weeks per year that I am swimming in tomatoes and can happily store extra or share them with friends. The rest of the year, however, I depend on a variety of different distribution systems (from the farmer's market to the produce section of the grocery store to the canned foods industry) to provide me with the tomatoes that I want to feed my family. There are people in others parts of the world that are lucky enough to have a longer growing season than I have, but I just don't have the ability to produce all the tomatoes that I need, despite the fact that tomatoes are not a scarce commodity on a global scale.
Breast milk also isn't a scarce commodity. Breast milk exists in sufficient quantities to feed the world's babies, but not every mother has all the milk that she needs all the time. Breast milk is, however, a commodity that doesn't have advanced distribution channels like other commodities. But why is that? It is perhaps partly because there isn't a profit to be made in the breast milk industry, since selling of breast milk is illegal in many places like Canada. It is also partly because the infant formula industry exists and many people feel that it sufficiently fills the gap.
However, more and more mothers want to be able to feed their babies exclusively breast milk and want to avoid infant formula for health, financial and ethical reasons. This is where informal milk sharing networks come in. According to Emma Kwasnica, founder of the Human Milk 4 Human Babies Global Network:
Breast milk is not a scarce commodity, it's a free-flowing resource. With the advance of social media, women who are willing to share their breast milk can now easily connect with families who need milk for their children. We at HM4HB are thrilled to see women and families asserting their autonomy to do what is healthy, normal and ecological. Families are making informed choices to share breast milk and babies everywhere are thriving as a result.
I firmly believe that parents should have the choice to feed their babies however they want to. However, the perceived scarcity of breastmilk has taken that choice away from many women over the years. I am happy to see networks like HM4HB helping to create distribution channels and fill the gap so that more families have a truly free choice in how to feed their babies.
An Experiment Takes an Amazing Turn
Some of you may have read earlier this week about a man who was going to try to live on breast milk alone. When Emma Waverman wrote about it on her blog Embrace the Chaos, he was on Day 3 of the experiment and was documenting it on a blog called Don't Have a Cow (the blog is currently down and apparently will not be resurrected).
Reactions to the experiment were mixed. Some people were fascinated, some people were disgusted (which further underscores how ridiculous our thoughts on breast milk are - we drink the breast milk of COWS), and some people were upset that the milk was being wasted when it could go to babies in need. The family had, apparently, tried to donate the thousands of ounces of breast milk that they have, but were unable to find a donor.
This story has a wonderful ending. After talking with Emma Kwasnica of HM4HB, the family has now been connected with a mom in California who gave birth to quad babies in June of this year. Katie, the mom with all the extra breast milk, will be handing over several thousands of ounces of breast milk to the four babies. An amazing story of sharing the wealth and the warmth of breast milk.
This is just one example of how a family with extra breast milk can help a family in need. The continued advocacy and support of informal milk sharing provides great promise for helping families provide exclusive breast milk for their babies and creating community and support for breastfeeding moms.
Happy World Milksharing Week!
I'd like to wish all of you a Happy World Milksharing Week. If you have a milksharing story or if you have thoughts on milksharing, I'd love for you to leave a comment. The more discussion we have of the amazing possibilities of milk sharing, the more families that can be helped.