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Breast Milk: Not a Scarce Commodity

The business model and profitability of infant formula companies depends primarily on two myths:

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.
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Reader Comments (29)

I hope that Milksharing Week really puts the idea of sharing milk in the spotlight. I had no idea people shared milk until after I had my daughter. I also had to pump exclusively for the first 6 weeks of her life, until she learned to breastfeed, and had so much extra milk frozen, I didn't know what to do with it. I was able to donate over 100oz to a mother/baby a couple months ago, and now wish I had pumped even more while still on maternity leave, so that I would have been able to share more.

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

I wish I had known more about milk sharing before I had the triplets. I think if I had, I may have pursued it more with my girls and may have been able to breastfeed them longer. I loved the story you told about the quads getting donated milk. Thanks Annie for bringing it up.

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

It would be amazing if you could add Eats on Feets to your list of milksharing sites :)

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCara

Question for you - I am currently nursing my 25 month old (2 times a day) and I'm not sure if he is slowly weaning himself or what but he is not emptying my breasts at each feeding and it is killing me. Seriously, I should not have rock hard boobs this late in the game! Anyways, I am thinking about pumping to empty the breast and then donating the milk. Will my milk contain the right nutrients for younger babies? (man I feel dumb asking this)

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Thanks for highlighting World Milksharing Week, Annie. This is a story about milksharing in our community. It was published in the Spring edition of "Birth Issues." The issue will load as a PDF here, and I've republished it over on my blog. http://www.asac.ab.ca/BI/BirthIssues_Spring2011.pdf

Noah's Gift:

On Christmas Eve, Olivia Greenham and Caleb Hiebert sat beside their tiny newborn son Noah as hospital staff disconnected the machines keeping him alive. They prepared to say goodbye, steeling themselves to spend their last few hours with Noah on the eve of Christ’s birth.

Noah had been airlifted from the hospital in Grande Prairie to the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton after complications at his birth deprived his brain of oxygen and he suffered seizures. At the Stollery his parents heard he was ‘brain-dead,’ and would never be able to walk or talk or feed himself. They made the difficult decision to take him of his life support.

They thought it would take just a few hours.

But Noah didn’t die....


September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJodine Chase

[...] PhD in Parenting — Breast Milk: Not a Scarce Commodity Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

I had to supplement my daughter for the first three months of her life. She was an insuffiecient nurser and while normally I'm able to produce enough milk to feed my babies, with my 6th baby I just couldn't. (I suspect it was partly an endocrine issue). I pumped 12 times a day with a hospital grade pump and was lucky to get about 6 ounces a day..(pumps and I just never have been a good fit.) It broke my heart to think of feeding her formula - I had some terrific friends and my midwife who "foraged" milk for me from friends and one of my friends had her baby about the same time so she pumped for me too. I managed to supplement her and only used one can of powdered formula the entire time!! I am so thankful my daughter got the good stuff at a time when she so desperately needed it.

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

This is so interesting to me, as a maternal-child nurse and social worker I advocate for children and families all the time and this is an area that I am not very familiar.
Thank you ...it is a discussion I would love to see. I hope more people comment as I am interested in how successful networking is for those that want to share breast milk with those who need it.

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLorette Lavine

[...] Breast Milk: Not a Scarce Commodity — PhD in Parenting. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintRedditStumbleUponDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBreast Milk Sharing…. &l

This is beautiful and so inspiring!

September 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa @ Nurture Normally

Maybe my vision of a world where donor breastmilk is the default option, not formula, is really possible…


September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJess@miniMum

HM4HB is the new name for Eats on Feets ;)

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTeni

Thank you for this wonderful story that supports and points out the normalcy and need for milksharing.
This is very exciting for me to see World Milksharing Week being celebrated.. When I first came up with the idea to set aside a week for World Milksharing I never thought it would be met with so much enthusiasm.. I

brought the idea to HM4HB where I am administrator for Kentucky

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria Gensheimer

I don't think it is, Teni. They still exist too.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJane

Jen, there is some recent research that the milk of moms who've been lactating for more than a year is actually MORE nutritious (or maybe just higher in fat) than the milk of newer moms. It would be so cool if you would donate your milk. You can find your local Human Milk 4 Human Babies chapter on Facebook.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbhn

It's amazing how successful it is, Lorette! Check out Human Milk 4 Human Babies on Facebook and you will see we have 5000 likers and hundreds of local pages.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbhn

Most of the Eats on Feets community administrators changed to Human Milk 4 Human Babies last year when Eats on Feets Global became Human Milk 4 Human Babies Global network. A few Eats on Feets admins decided to keep the name, and there have been a few new Eats on Feets chapters that have formed since that time.

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJodine Chase

Great discussion, thanks for bringing this to my awareness, as a counselor helping families during pregnancy, birth & postpartum, I didn't know of this resource. Now I dom thanks to you.

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Morelli

Hi! I just wanted to wish everyone a happy milksharing week! I've been a donor rather than a recipient of shared milk. With both my babies, I had oversupply, and thanks to my knowledgeable doula, I learned there was an official milk bank in the city where I lived (very rare!). And that there was a drop-off site in the smaller town an hour away where I eventually moved. So I spent the first seven months of baby's life pumping pumping pumping. I was so lonely as a new mother. While I was pumping I would think about other new mothers out there, ones with their babies in the NICU (that's where most milk bank milk goes), and I felt so connected to them. It made me less lonely, gave me a sense of purpose and connection with all those parents and babies I never met. So I did the same with #2. Late in the game with #2 I learned about HM4HB. Reading the stories of mothers looking for milk was heart wrenching - I wanted to give milk to everyone! I paused from donating to the bank and donated through HM4HB to a mama who needed some extra. It's a beautiful experience to donate milk. Yes, pumping is an annoying hassle. But it is so worth it. I donated 1300-1500 ounces over my milk-producing years (I stopped when I went back to work, when the babies were around 7 months, because my supplies tended to drop then).

Somebody upthread asked about donating milk of an older toddler, and I just wanted to say that even though breastmilk is always wholesome and nutritious, it really is better to match your donation relatively closely to the age of the donor baby. Breast milk changes with the evolving nutritional needs of babies, so the needs of a newborn are different from a 6 month old or 12 month old. (Milk banks don't accept milk past 12 months for that reason.)

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

As knowledgeable about breastfeeding as I thought I was with both of my children, I never thought to inquire about milk sharing with either baby, donated milk was never offered in the hospital, and I didn't know about donating my own milk with my son.

I gave my daughter formula via SNS in the hospital (she and my son both had ABO incompatiblity & severe jaundice at birth, which required light treatment and increased feeding) while pumping around the clock until my milk came in at 5 days pp (at which time I was able to slowly add little quantities of breastmilk to her formula until her jaundice cleared, and I was producing enough milk to offer breastmilk only). When my son was born, I was still nursing my daughter and had no milk production issues; I had ample supply at that point; and he needed no additonal supplementation to help clear the bilirubin.

Two things that I'd have done differently:
- Inquired about donated breastmilk with my daughter (I knew at the time about the damage to the virgin gut that formula can cause, but I was offered no other choice than formula).
- Donated my oversupply with my son (he didn't drink all of the frozen milk I had, and I didn't know where/how to donate - at the time I *still* didn't even think of milksharing as an option!, and I ended up throwing away my frozen breastmilk)

I don't know the possibility of making breastmilk available in the hospital to new mothers, but that seems like the ideal place to have milksharing available. Instead of receiving 10ccs of formula to "bring up sugar levels", a new baby could be offered 10ccs of breastmilk. If mom's milk isn't coming in, donated breastmilk could be offered via SNS instead of a bottle of formula. Mothers who need breastmilk donations for whatever reason, could have a list of resources given to them when they leave the hospital (instead of the loads of formula resources typically given). LLL needs to get in on the support as well. In the years that I was an active member of LLL, breastmilk donation was never forefront in discussions, and it should have been.

Thanks for sharing the upside of the Don't Have a Cow story. I was less "disgusted" by the fact that an adult human was drinking human milk for a human baby (breastmilk tastes good, really) than I was with the milk owners' consistent defense of their position of not giving away the milk. I am glad that the milk will meet up with babies who NEED it.

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

Found my local chapter! Thanks!

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Are you calling my milk old?? ;)

I will just make sure I disclose that I am donating 'mature' milk incase any of those in need are concerned.

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

When my son was about four months old he refused the frozen breastmilk I had (I think he didn't like the taste, and it did taste a little "off" to me, I believe there is an enzyme that does that?). A good friend was having trouble nursing her daughter; N was not gaining weight despite my friend's best efforts. I gave her a couple of hundred ounces of my frozen milk which she used to supplement until they figured things out - she ended up weaning approximately two years later. I was so glad for my milk to have gone to good use instead of being dumped!! I have always had an excellent milk supply; when my next baby is born if things go well for us again I will definitely plan to donate through HM4HB!!

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNico

Readers may be interested in this related commentary http://www.internationalbreastfeedingjournal.com/content/6/1/8, which is available for download at no cost.

James Akre, Geneva, Switzerland

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames Akre

Hi -
I had the opportunity to refer someone in ob-gyn practice I work in already to this b/c of your advocacy blog post. thank you .

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Morelli

Hospitals in North America should all have access to breast milk from official milk banks. While there aren't that many milk banks in North America - and thus the milk can be in short supply - they can ship the milk anywhere in the country. Thus, a milk bank in one states services all the adjoining 7 or 8 states. So in theory it should be very possible, even easy, to give mothers in the hospital access to donated breast milk. As I mentioned above, babies in the NICU are the primary recipients of milk bank milk. But unfortunately, it seems like something parents have to request rather than a service that is offered to them. And parents do need a doctor's prescription. But if anybody is reading this in the US, if you are in hospital and want your baby to have access to donor milk, ask the hospital staff, or consult with the human milk banking association of North America. I'm a big believer in informal donations (because it's free, whereas milk bank milk is really $$$), but milk banks are in desperate need of donations and financial support.

(Readers might know this, but FWIW, milk bank milk is screened rigorously. Donors receive psychological and medical screening - a blood test - and strict instructions about donating while sick, taking medications, ingesting caffeine/alcohol, etc. The milk is mixed with other donor milk for the best combination of fore and hind milk and it is gently pasteurized.)

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Milk sharing is a wonderful thing happening to humanity.Some mothers unfortunately can't give milk to their kids because of limited or no production of milk.They need to depend on commercial foods which may not good for their kids health.Now this milk sharing is a real fantastic job round the corner and helps mothers a lot.I appreciate those woman who are doing this noble thing.

September 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSrivinati

Annie, I loved this post when it ran and I loved it again yesterday when I looked it up so I could mention it in my blogpost, Milksharing on Facebook - one year later. I love how you used the terminology of economics theory.


November 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJodine Chase

I referenced this great post AGAIN, Annie, on my Human Milk News blog. :) http://www.bfnews.blogspot.com/2011/12/bloomberg-human-milk-article-misses.html

December 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJodine Chase

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