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When Hill's first daughter lost weight dramatically as a newborn, Hill sought help from several lactation consultants. "Everyone was stumped." It turned out Hill had insufficient glandular tissue, a condition where there aren't enough breast cells to make milk. With each of her three children, she could make some milk, but not enough that they could thrive. Back then, the only resource available was a Yahoo group called Milkshare. There, Hill found a doctor in Manhattan with milk available. The night before her husband got on the train with insulated freezer bags, Hill lay awake, her mind filled with question marks. "I didn't know her, and we were going to feed our baby her breast milk. I had to walk myself through the logic of it: She'd provided copies of her blood work; she was healthy; this is the same milk she feeds her babies."
It was because of her own doubts that Hill and a friend started Modern Milksharing, a national online support system. What started as a blog became a Facebook group, now known as a resource for the logistics and etiquette around milk sharing. Hill eventually became a lactation consultant so she could work with families locally. Usually it's just a phone call in which milk recipients ask questions. Why is this safe? How is it safe? What do I need to do it safely? Hill says, "Safety is a big concern because this is what you're feeding your baby." A recent study published in Pediatrics showed that breast milk purchased from the Internet was sometimes tainted with cow's milk, presumably to stretch profits. Buying breast milk privately is generally considered an unsafe practice. The assertion is that shared milk is safer because it's usually pumped for women's own babies.
Alexa goes further, crediting shared breast milk for Asa's eventual health. Last August, Asa turned two, with no long-term disabilities identified. "It's almost unheard of for a baby with his pulmonary history to not have asthma or need breathing treatments." Mother's milk contains antibodies to help protect a baby in a particular environment. "[Because the baby receieved] milk from 20 different moms, I suspect he was passed antibodies for many more illnesses and diseases than I could have provided with my milk alone."
Breast is Best
When she finished her maternity leave and went back to work, Kelly Hidalgo's baby began nursing only at night. She pumps milk for him at work, but it chills in her freezer unused. "I would feel bad when parents worried about their milk supply, and I was overproducing myself," Hidalgo says. So she started checking milk sharing Facebook groups, like Eats on Feets, for local calls for milk.
It's time consuming. A pumping session might take twenty minutes, several times a day. Yet, whether to a bank or informally sharing, breast milk donors gift their milk without compensation. The reasons motivating women to donate breast milk often boil down to two. Most of the calls to the Hudson Valley Milk Bank are from women desperate for freezer space who feel wasteful throwing the milk away. Some women pump to donate, and like Hidalgo, liken it to giving at church. They might choose to give informally if they don't meet a bank's requirements for minimum donation or screening.
Informal milk sharing communities ask donors to self-screen. The motto at Eats on Feets is "Know Thy Donor." "Donors and recipients are encouraged to speak in depth with one another to make sure that donated milk is safe and acceptable with respect to lifestyle," says Jean Garretto, an Assistant Midwife who runs the Eats on Feets New York group. Having just given birth, donors often have copies of recent blood work on hand. Hidalgo offers recipients her health history and diet, which she says most parents feel too awkward to ask. With most deliveries, Hidalgo packs a cooler filled with ten 5-ounce bags of her frozen, labeled breast milk and meets up with the moms for playdates.
Jed puts June in the Baby Bjorn, some ice packs in an insulated bag, and heads out on the subway. After the initial prescription for milk bank milk, when the Ilanys need to supplement their supply from Kim, they turn to informal sharing. At the women's apartments, they chat about how fast babyhood goes. "It's like meeting an immediate friend," says Jed. "I feel so indebted and grateful to these people. I'm trying to do the best for my baby, and they're doing something that I could never do myself."