Breastfeeding isn't an exact science. Some moms can't produce enough breast milk, and others end up with a surplus of it. This imbalance is why milk banks exist and why a growing number of mothers are informally sharing milk amongst themselves.
Lauren Archer, a postpartum doula and mother of one, is an advocate for breast milk donation and wet nursing. On Saturday, Jan. 12, Archer posted a photo to Instagram of her 20-month old son, Cubby, nursing alongside another woman's child who she's also breastfed.
"I have fed both of these babes at my breast," Archer wrote. "One is my biological son, one I had just met."
She went on to explain how she first breastfed the young girl in the photo when she was just two days old. Archer told the girl's mom, who she'd met 30 minutes before, "I know we just met but I'm happy to feed your babe if you're ok with it.
According to Archer's caption, the girl's mom accepted the offer and showered her with "gratitude and love" that she feels to this day.
"Wet nursing that babe is one of the most amazing memories I have," Archer wrote. "That little babe has turned into the toddler you see here and her mother has turned into one of my best friends. The bond that came from that moment is stronger than any breastmilk antibody."
Her reason for sharing this photo and the story behind it is to encourage other moms to donate and share their breast milk. As Archer wrote, "Breastmilk donations save lives. But it also allows non-nursing parents, parents unable to nurse, babes that are unable to drink formula, and parents that were wanting breastmilk to be a part of their journey to have a postpartum period they desire."
Archer, who says her son has "9 milk siblings," is part of a growing group of parents who are on a mission to #normalizemilksharing. The concept behind this movement is nothing new. In fact, milk sharing and wet nurses have been around as far back as 2000 B.C. But many experts advise against informal milk sharing—even if the source is a trusted friend or family member.
The reason? "With unpasteurized breast milk, there's a risk of contamination from a virus or bacteria during milk expression or storage," Younger Meek, M.D., a professor at Florida State University College of Medicine, in Tallahassee, and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Breastfeeding, previously told Parents.com.
And breast milk isn't the kind of thing you want to purchase online, either. According to one study in Pediatrics, 74 percent of breast milk samples bought online contained a number of potentially harmful bacteria, including staphylococcus and E. coli. Another study found that 10 percent of breast milk samples bought online were partly cow's milk—meaning the breast milk had been diluted so that the seller could earn more money.
The safest way to share breast milk is through a Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) certified milk bank. This organization accredits nonprofit milk banks in the U.S. and Canada, and sets international guidelines for pasteurized donor human milk.
This donated breast milk goes through a careful screening process to eliminate bacteria and viruses, and it's also tested for bacterial growth after pasteurization as a further safeguard to protect medically fragile infants.
Because donors aren't paid, there's no financial incentive to dilute the milk in order to sell more. With a certified, nonprofit milk bank, donated breast milk can be equitably distributed to the babies who need it rather than being sold for a profit.