There are many situations where a mother wants to breastfeed but other factors prevent it. Did you know donor milk is an option and is considered by the World Health Organization to be superior to formula? Human breastmilk is available through milk banks as well as informally through mother-to-mother sharing. Either can be a safe option with proper precautions. The incidence of babies receiving donor milk is unknown, in part because moms are understandably reluctant to disclose this to their pediatrician, and in part because of the popularity of informal milksharing between friends or via groups such as Human Milk 4 Human Babies or Eats on Feets.
Because milksharing (unlike formula) is relatively foreign to most of us, we have not developed societal rules governing the relationship between donor and recipient. It is intensely personal to both moms, one who wants the very best for her child and is brave enough to seek it out, and one who is literally giving of her body out of the desire to honor another life. My years of milk donation have helped me identify some areas where things can go wrong.
If you are pumping for donation:
- The first rule is obviously to make sure you have no bloodborne diseases. You should have received testing for HIV, hepatitis, etc, during your prenatal care – of course everything should be negative and I’m just going to say that you should be in a mutually monogamous relationship to prevent your acquiring and transmitting diseases unknowingly. Anything less is morally repugnant in the danger it poses to the recipient of your milk.
- Handle all milk, pump parts, bottles, etc with clean hands. If you touch your face, change a diaper, or answer the phone, wash your hands again before you touch anything that will touch the milk. Wash and sterilize pump parts after use. Keep storage bags at room temperature, not in a hot car where their integrity can be compromised. Use common sense and don’t contaminate the milk.
- It is unnecessary to sterilize your nipples but shower daily and wash your bra daily as well. A wet bra breeds thrush and no one needs that.
- Store the milk properly. Ideally it should go straight into a chest freezer or if you are sharing fresh milk, the refrigerator. If you forget and leave it out on the counter all day, sorry – toss it out. It’s not nice to take risks with someone else’s baby.
- Eat a clean diet. Do not smoke or use illegal drugs. Disclose all medications you are taking to the recipient family. Ideally your doctor will have cleared your medications for your own baby but your recipient family may have different standards for their baby and that’s ok.
- Let her know she’s a great mom. After all, she is seeking the best nutrition available to her – your milk. Let her know you think she’s doing a great job!
If you are receiving donor milk for your baby:
- Provide the containers. Remember that without this milk you would be buying formula, and this milk is far superior and costing you nothing. So cheerfully buy bags of your donor’s choosing.
- If your donor is pumping for you on an ongoing basis, it might be more economical for you to provide storage bottles instead. When you pick up the filled bottles, you can provide a clean empty set. Note I said “clean”. It is amazingly, horribly rude to bring dirty bottles that have had milk sitting in them for a week, and ask your donor to wash them before she fills them up with her pumped breastmilk. You’d be surprised to know that people actually do this.
- We don’t need to say that this is a million times more disgusting if you are bringing the donor dirty bottles you got from a *different* donor. It is never ok to tell a donor that she will “need” to wash someone else’s breastmilk out of the bottles you are asking her to fill for your baby. Remember the only thing she HAS to do is feed her own baby.
- Don’t act entitled. Helping you feed your baby is a privilege, but that doesn’t translate to an obligation on the donor’s part. Say thank you. If there is something you can do in return, do it, whether that means making her something or offering your skills as a computer repairperson or photographer or landscape designer. Yes, you have a new baby to care for – but so does your donor, and in addition to feeding her own baby, she is taking time away from that baby to sit and pump (while scheduling pumping sessions around her own baby’s feeding), wash pump parts, properly store milk, and meet up with you to deliver that milk. She wouldn’t be doing any of this otherwise. So make her happy to do it for you.