In May 2008, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck China while police officer Jiang Xiaojuan was on duty. The disaster left more than 80,000 people dead or missing. Xiaojuan, a breastfeeding mother with a 6-month-old baby boy at home, breastfed several additional babies as needed. She even continued to breastfeed one of the babies in the aftermath of the earthquake at his traumatized mother’s request.
In 2009, Salma Hayek made headlines when she breastfed another woman’s baby on camera during a visit to Africa. She was still breastfeeding her 1-year-old daughter when she decided to share her milk with a hungry infant from Sierra Leone, a country that has the highest infant mortality rate in the world in part due to malnutrition.
Throughout human history, women around the globe have been allowing others to breastfeed their babies—sometimes out of need, sometimes out of choice. Even today, the act of “cross-nursing” or “wet-nursing” is supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF. As socioculturalist James Akre explains elsewhere on baby gooroo, “[s]ince pre-history, mothers in need of human milk have relied on other mothers in their family and community with milk to spare and share. According to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the second-best feeding option, after breastfeeding, is breast milk expressed by a child’s own mother, followed by milk from a healthy wet-nurse or from a human-milk bank.”
In modern American society, it is uncommon for a woman to breastfeed another mother’s child directly, but mother-to-mother milk sharing—the giving of one mother’s expressed milk for feeding to another mother’s baby—is increasingly common. “Donor human milk is the preferred feeding when the mother’s own milk is not available in sufficient quantity,” conclude researchers in a recent issue of the Journal of Perinatal Medicine.
Mothers with extra milk to donate may do so through Human Milk Banking Association of North America (hmbana.org) milk banks; they may also select to donate directly to families in need of milk for their babies. Websites like Eats on Feets (eatsonfeets.org), Human Milk 4 Human Babies (hm4hb.net) and Milkshare (milkshare.birthingforlife.com) connect donors and recipients. Accepting another woman’s milk for your baby is not risk-free. In its recent policy statement for leaders, La Leche League International (LLL) identified the following risks: “transmission of certain infectious agents, like bacteria or viruses, some of which may be found in milk expressed by asymptomatic women; drugs; possibly some environmental contaminants, and potentially unhygienic storage and handling of unprocessed donated milk.” At the same time, it identified several benefits: “optimal nutrition, easy digestibility, and immunologic protection.”
“Mothers Give for One Who Can’t” was the title of a recent Wall Street Journal article about 30 U.S. mothers with the shared goal of providing breast milk for a pair of New York City twins whose mother died in childbirth in November 2011. The twins’ father, Jay Snyder, accepted a friend’s offer to coordinate donations for the family after his wife died hours after delivering the babies via cesarean section. This story illustrates the fact that wet-nursing is about mothers helping mothers—and their babies. Explained playwright Jessica Provenz, who coordinated the breast milk donations for the Snyder babies: “[Their mother’s death is] such a tragedy that it just hit me the way I’m sure it hits most people. So I thought, ‘What can I do?’ If I could have given them tons of money, I certainly would have, but falling short of that I thought, ‘Well, I have a 6-month-old son, and I have breast milk. I can give them my milk.’”
Each mother needs to consider for herself and her child the health risks and benefits of milk sharing (via direct breastfeeding or expressed milk) versus formula-feeding. In either case, parents should make an informed decision considering what’s best for their family and what’s best for their babies.
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