At first, I thought it was gross. Put someone else’s milk inside my baby’s body? Not in a thousand years. But I recently learned that for thousands of years, that’s just what wet nurses did. Once an esteemed profession, wet nurses breastfed for the mothers of nobility so heirs could be produced more quickly, for mothers of multiples who couldn’t produce enough milk for their babies, for mothers who were ill or died in childbirth, or those who simply didn’t want to breast-feed. It wasn’t until the 1940s that wet nursing fell into decline.
Now, milk banks provide a similar service, offering valuable breast milk to mothers who can’t nurse their own infants. Safely regulated, some new parents are finding this a nutritional alternative to formula.
The Rise of Formula
Commercial formula like Similac (for “similar to lactation”) came on the scene after WWII, in tandem with refrigeration and the baby boom. Today, the FDA requires all formulas to contain the same nutrient mix: purified cow’s milk or soy as protein, a blend of vegetable oils as fat, lactose as carbohydrate, a mineral-vitamin mix, and other ingredients as preservatives.
Formula grew so popular that by the 1970s, nearly 75 percent of U.S. infants were formula-fed. It’s an attractive alternative. Fourteen years ago, I was nursing my newborn daughter when I fell and broke my arm. Between taking pain meds and having my arm in a hard cast, I switched her to formula. Admittedly, it was a welcome change. No more leaking or pumping. Just add water. And my child turned out fine, so I’m not formula bashing.
But study after study show nothing is as good for baby as mother’s milk. Because of its makeup, breast milk is easily digested, carries nutritious proteins, and the antibodies present help babies fight infections. That’s why NICU staff call it “liquid gold.” And best of all, it’s free.
How Milk Banks Work
So what happens when moms want to give their baby breast milk but can’t? Rebecca Rivera, mother of 7-month-old Luna, underwent surgery to remove a cyst provoked by mastitis shortly after her daughter was born.
“After I got better, we tried to regain the milk supply from my right breast, with no success.” She and her husband tried goat milk and formula, but, “we really believe breast milk is the best sustenance for our child.”
Instead of wet nurses, parents like the Riveras now have other options: milk banks and milk-sharing communities. The Human Milk Bank Association of North America provides a resource for parents to donate milk or to order milk from 11 different banks in the U.S. and Canada. Each has safety regulations in place to combat disease and contamination.
Donors are screened during an initial interview that covers medical history, smoking, alcohol and drug use, blood transfusions, and international travel. Women also submit signed forms from their OB-GYN and pediatrician.
Then, a practitioner comes to the home for a blood test. A DNA profile is created from a mouth swab to ensure a match when the milk is received at the bank. After instruction on proper pumping, storage (including a freezer thermometer), and shipping methods, a donor is approved. Milk entering the bank is screened, pasteurized, stored, tested for bacteria growth, and mixed for use in neonatal care units and public sale.
All donor screening and shipping is free. Breast milk from a bank costs $2 to $3 per ounce, plus tax and shipping, or roughly $60 a day to feed a seven-pound newborn. Some insurance companies will cover the expense for critically ill newborns.
The second option is Human Milk 4 Human Babies. It is one of several online communities for mothers who want to connect directly with milk donors. A family looking for milk or a mom with extra milk to donate posts her location on the website. From there, the two parties have private conversations and arrange pick-up. Lucky parents develop a long-lasting relationship, a “milky match,” and exchange specifically with one another. No money is involved, but some recipients pay for storage bags.
Even when frozen, breast milk expires. Lakeland mother of two Rachel Benfield needed more freezer room but didn’t want to trash her stock, so she asked advice from moms in her consignment group. “One woman told me about HM4HB. I Googled it, read about them, and found their Tennessee page on Facebook.” She has already donated over 200 ounces.
Making It Safe
The FDA cites safety concerns and warns against direct milk sharing, but has never established state regulations for milk banks. Public groups like HM4HB and Eats on Feets operate on the policy of full disclosure — donors must be honest about medical history and lifestyle choices. Many donors are milk-bank approved and offer to share screening results. For recipients worried about disease, the state of Tennessee requires prenatal HIV testing and a full blood work-up from OB-GYNs or midwives before delivery. Another comfort comes in knowing that mothers donating breast milk are also feeding their own children.
Undisputed for thousands of years, the breast is best. But if mothers like Rebecca Rivera are unable to nurse, it’s great to know there is a way for her to connect with Rachel Benfield for an alternative to processed formula. Baby Luna is thriving on human milk. And the slow food movement trickles down.