For mothers serving in the military, milk sharing is a very real need. Due to the many challenges inherent in serving in the military, such as a lack of place and time to pump, military mothers often have low milk supply issues and must either resort to giving their babies formula or find human milk to supplement their own supplies. In other cases they may be facing deployment or a long-term training scenario which will take them away from their infant for an extended period of time, and they may not have enough of a stockpile saved up or will not have any way to ship their own pumped milk home. In some cases mothers want their infant to continue breastfeeding so that they will return to the breast when they return home from deployment. For all of these military mothers milk sharing may be the answer and can mean the difference between a breastfed baby and a formula fed baby.
The concept is not new, throughout history donor milk (via milk banks), milk sharing, and wet-nursing are all ways that mothers have provided milk to their own infants or to other infants in times of need. In fact the World Health Organization states that milk banks and wet-nursing are equal alternatives and preferred over formula when a mother’s own milk is not available. Many mothers, military or not, are investigating various forms of milk sharing before choosing what will work best for themselves and their families (and the numbers are increasing as the practice becomes more well-known). Some chose donor milk from a milk bank that is associated with the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA). In the case of milk banks the milk is collected, screened and pasteurized before being sent out to eligible families. However milk from milk banks is very costly and is usually reserved for preemies and sick babies only (not full-term, healthy infants). Other mothers, especially those dealing with low milk supply, investigate more informal forms of milk sharing via friends, family or the internet. In some cases a friend, family member or co-worker can provide donated expressed milk or offer to feed each others babies, but in most cases mothers are turning to the internet and social networking to find women willing to donate milk.
Informal Milk Sharing
What is informal milk sharing exactly? In a nutshell, it is the sharing of human milk between one mother to another. Milk sharing may involve two or more women who know one another already, or who find each other through word of mouth or an organization (often online). There is a donor, who provides the milk, and a recipient who receives the milk. In some cases the sharing is local, while in other cases milk is shipped to the recipient from out-of-state or internationally. Normally there is no exchange of money or other items. Milk sharing is a way for mothers with an abundance of milk, who otherwise cannot or chose not to donate to a milk bank, to give milk to mothers who are in desperate need of breastmilk, who cannot or chose not to receive milk from a milk bank.
Curious about WHO is milk-sharing? A recent study “Contextualizing online human milk sharing: structural factors and lactation disparity among middle-income women in the U.S.” Social Science & Medicine, 122, 140-147 (more info at the Anthrolactology blog) found that the majority of donors are white, middle-class, well-educated women while the majority of recipients had c-sections or preterm births, and low support for breastfeeding from their pediatricians. In all cases the women continued to breastfeed or pump while also milk-sharing. Further study needs to be done in this area looking at other socio-economic groups, such as the military.
Benefits & Risks
The obvious benefits to informal milk sharing include continued access to human milk (and all the benefits that come with it), no exposure to formula, and the cost savings of not having to pay for formula (and the subsequent increased health care costs). While there is documented evidence of harm from breastmilk substitutes (formula) such as diabetes, obesity, certain cancers and infections, informal milk sharing is also not without risk. Women planning to participate in milk sharing (even between family members or friends) of any type should consider how the milk was collected and stored, whether the mother donating is taking any drugs or herbs, is a smoker, or has any illnesses (that she may or may not be aware of). Some mothers ask the potential donor to fill out a questionnaire or submit to testing. If you are considering milk sharing you need to weigh the risks versus benefits to your baby and chose what will work for your family.
Interested in Milk Sharing?
First of all research your options. Both Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies have well written information regarding milk sharing. In researching this post I spoke with representatives from both organizations. Here is what they had to say.
Eats on Feets – Good information can be found on the organization’s website www.eatsonfeets.org. “We are an organization that is built upon the 4 pillars of safe breast milk sharing and one of those pillars is making an informed choice (by both donor and recipient), in which the parties involved understand the options, including the risks and benefits, of all infant and child feeding methods. We are trying to convey, as an organization ‘From Informal to Informed’. In order to do this effectively, we created a tool called the ‘Resource for Informed Breast Milk Sharing‘, which goes through many of the questions surrounding milk sharing and beyond. We do occasionally see requests/offers from military personnel but we do not reach out to the military specifically. We reach our users by word of mouth via social media pages on Facebook. We currently do not have specific military pages. We do not compartmentalize based on specific demographic, but more on geographic location. In fact, since we are a GLOBAL organization, this could serve the military personnel greater. Please note that due to the informed choice, users can request another military recipient/donor as their milk match. In areas where there is a higher concentration of military personnel, this would be very feasible. Also, they could post on our main page wall and possibly use shipping as the means for transportation. Also, Eats on Feets, supports our users to post anonymously and then direct contact is made behind the scenes if they so wish.”
Human Milk 4 Human Babies – Excellent information can be found on the website www.hm4hb.net, particularly in the FAQ section. “We promote the nourishment of babies and children via breastmilk by fostering community between individuals that wish to share breastmilk. Informed choice via both parties is required. We are a global organization with Chapters in every state and overseas. Donors and recipients find each other via Chapter Pages on Facebook. There is definitely sharing among and by military moms, for instance many moms at Ft Hood post on our Texas page. We don’t have a military specific page because our goal is to facilitate local milksharing and relationships. Individuals contact each other via Private Message or replying to a Post. Details are worked out between individuals.”
Military Milk Sharing Stories
As milk sharing becomes more mainstream and well-known, especially within the military, moms are sharing their experiences and stories. I’ve collected a few here to share. The HM4HB Facebook Page posted asking moms to share their stories about donating and receiving milk within the military community. The response was immediate and heartwarming. You can read about it here: https://www.facebook.com/hm4hb/posts/894146640629876
Nikki Williams wrote a blog post in 2013 about an informal milk sharing set-up in Wiesbaden, Germany that helped an AD mom provide milk to her son when she was sent away on training for 5 weeks when he was 4 months hold. Read “A Tale of Military Milk Sharing” for a heartwarming story.
The stories below were sent to the Breastfeeding in Combat Boots Facebook Page by military mothers who have either donated or received milk via informal milksharing and wanted to share their experiences.
Penny (Chief Petty Officer, USCG) shares her story:
When my first son was born in 2011 a combination of bad advice and possible IGT left us exclusively pumping from the beginning. Despite all the supplements and Domperidone in the world I never produced enough for him. At 5mo old I had to leave for the CG’s Chief Petty Officer Academy in California for 5 weeks, I shipped milk home from there but it still wasn’t enough. I had a long term donor, an active duty Navy wife and mom donate over 6,000oz to us over the course of a year. We also used 5 other donors in small amounts all in the VA Beach area and mostly Navy wives. They were amazing and got us through rough times.
When my second son was born in 2013 I had a friend ship me frozen milk to use if necessary to supplement in the beginning. I snuck small amounts into the hospital and spoon fed so that he would not lose too much weight and we could be discharged early. I then had to use donor milk for the first month via a Supplemental Nursing System. Now at 14mo my son is still nursing but we’ve had several donors these last few months provide milk for use at daycare because I no longer pump hardly anything at all. Around 6mo old my dear friend who I know through an online breastfeeding group but have never met in person, had a baby in Charlotte and has IGT. I sent her 100oz of my own frozen stash to also get her through the first few weeks of building her supply. It was awesome to be able to donate some of my own and give back. She was able to reciprocate to me just a few months ago. Low supply moms helping other low supply moms, it’s truly an indescribable bond .
I am now done having children but milk sharing has been a huge part of our journey and I am so thankful for all the moms out there who donate.
Bridget (Capt., USMC) has this to say about her experience milk sharing:
I donated with both my girls through the FB group Human Milk 4 Human Babies. I also used it when travelling TAD so that I didn’t have to worry about flying with it, etc. I feel blessed to have an over-supply and never have to worry about supplementing. But, man I do a lot of pumping! I am still BF-ing my 10 month old. I usually put information on my posts that were open and honest such as “I have a coffee occasionally ” our “I drink milk” (alot of mom’s specify that their LO’s can’t tolerate dairy). Nothing was ever written except that I would message them that “they got it, and where did they want to meet” (alot of time more than one person would reply). One person got me more storage bags and one person gave me a Walmart gift card (not supposed to but it was nice). No testing. I figured if they really wanted to they could always use those test strips to see if their was any alcohol (which there wasn’t!). I had good experiences, not sure how I would feel about being on the other end. I have given to multiple mom’s, with each of the girls there was one mom (as in one for each girl not the same mom) that I gave to multiple times. I have never looked into milk banks because I would rather give than get money. Overall great experience!
Julie (SSGT, USAF) had this to say about her experience:
My son stopped nursing at 7 months. I tried to exclusively pump but I dried up quick. My co-worker had a boy a few months younger. She produced so much her freezer was overflowing!! I have to say I was a little nervous at first but ultimately thought it was better for my son than just formula. She offered to do blood tests etc to show she was healthy etc but we ultimately chose not to. I had known her for a few years prior. I’m a medic and she’s a pubic health technician. I did speak to my pediatrician about it (our kids both had the same pediatrician) and she was very supportive of it. There was no contract or anything. She was just happy to provide for another baby! I “paid her” with milk storage bags as that is all she wanted but I would have been happy to pay her $$. Unfortunately a couple months after we started she PCSd overseas. She gave me her entire stash she had here because she was afraid it would go bad while traveling. The only problem I came across was the CDC on base (daycare) refused to give my child her milk. They said it was against their policy because it didn’t come from an actual milk bank even though her son went to the same daycare and they could clearly see he was healthy. The pediatrician even offered to write a note supporting it but they refused. Ultimately he got formula a daycare and the breast milk at home. I had enough to last me until he turned 1 year old a couple weeks ago. Toward the end I did run out so I slowed down to one bottle of breastmilk per day. I figured a little breastmilk was better than none! It was a great experience and I feel my baby definitely benefited from it.
Isis (AD Army) has a had a number of different experiences during her service:
This photo was taken 3 Dec 14, I went out for my birthday and forgot my pump so a friend let me borrow her baby. We nursed in public in the restaurant without a cover. Due to my service, two of my three boys have received donor milk when I have been away for training. Those same boys have also nursed from other women during that time.
Recently a number of AD mothers have contacted the Breastfeeding in Combat Boots Facebook Page for help in locating other military mothers in need of milk as they had an excess and specifically wanted to donate to other military mothers. There have also been requests through the FB Page for info on where and how to obtain donor milk within the military community. (**Please note that I am not a broker for either party, I merely provide a forum for each party to contact one another**). As an IBCLC I see a clear need for informal milk sharing and I support milk sharing, but I feel that it must be done in a safe manner (please see the links below for more information). I also believe there is a definite need for military-to-military milk sharing network, in part due to the need for the understanding and support that only comes from a military perspective. But I also wonder if there isn’t a need for a more closed group due to OPSEC issues, or to maintain a safe space for milk sharing in a still male-dominated workplace environment where breastfeeding and breastmilk is still seen as weird, a ‘woman’s thing’, or sexual in nature. I would love to hear others thoughts on this issue.
For more info on milk sharing:
- Use of Donor Human Milk from the FDA
- Milk sharing: from private practice to public pursuit by James E Akre, Karleen D Gribble, and Maureen Minchin. International Breastfeeding Journal 2011, 6:8 (25 June 2011)
- Biomedical ethics and peer-to-peer milk sharing by Karleen D. Gribble. Clinical Lactation, 3(3):109-112 (2012).
- Supporting Families in Milk Sharing as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant by Amber McCann, IBCLC
- Breastfeeding USA – Milk Sharing: Formal and Informal
- KellyMom – Human Milk Banking and Other Donor Milk
- PhD in Parenting – Risks of Informal Milk Sharing versus Formula Feeding
Have you donated or received milk via informal milk sharing? What was your experience like? Would you do it again? Do you think a military-to-military milk sharing network is needed? Leave a comment below!