What Is Milk Sharing—And Who Can Benefit from It?

Women have been sharing breastmilk for thousands of years. Now, there are digital apps and services that make it easier than ever.
what is milk sharing

Breast milk continues to be considered one of the most precious and nutritious food sources in existence. It’s one of the first foods many of us are introduced to in life and sustains and nourishes us well through the first year of infancy.

Luckily, nowadays, we have access to many different types of formula, which provides a very similar (in fact, near-identical) nutrition content as breast milk and can come in handy for mothers who can’t—or choose not to—breastfeed for one reason or another. 

Formula and your own breastmilk aren’t the only options: milk sharing is another way to feed your baby.

Here, we explore this topic, offering important information, benefits, considerations and more. 

Here’s a deep dive into the basics of milk sharing and how parents from all backgrounds and circumstances can benefit from the process. 

What is milk sharing?

Milk sharing is the act of having another woman breastfeed another woman’s babies or using another woman’s breast milk to feed babies that are not her own. It —has been around for thousands of years and was originally referred to as “wet nursing.”

This first form of milk sharing emerged out of necessity, when mothers were regularly dying during childbirth or were unable to breastfeed. Some women are overproducers—where they produce more breast milk than the average mother, which creates an abundance of breast milk that their own baby does not need. Many of these mothers choose to share their breast milk—with neighbors, friends or strangers who need breast milk to feed their infants.

How can milk sharing be beneficial for families?

Despite the ‘Breast is Best’ campaign that has been popular throughout North America over the last few years, not every parent can or wants to  breastfeed.

Some parents don’t have breasts, some women with breasts are unable to breastfeed and unfortunately, we simply don’t have the societal support to make sure feeding infants is easier for caregivers.

If a new mother is able to breastfeed, she needs time and support to keep going. As mothers know all-too-well, just because a woman has breasts does not mean that breastfeeding will come naturally. Some women have a low milk supply, despite taking all suggested measures to increase this.

Some have to choose to return to a medication they need that will affect their milk supply and/or make it unsafe for their infants to consume. And without sufficient  postnatal leave and resources, it can be very difficult to continue to breastfeed for those mothers who have to return to work quickly.

Not all families are comprised of a male and female, and not all families are created through sexual intercourse.

Milk sharing can be beneficial to adoptive/foster parents; breast cancer survivors; LGBTQ+ families; families who use surrogates; children who lost their mothers during childbirth; disaster survivors; grandparents or other guardians raising infants.

And while formula is an excellent option for many families and infants, in the last few years, there have sadly been multiple recalls of infant formula. This causes significant issues with supply and ability for families to find and pay for formula.

There’s a saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and that also relates to the feeding and nourishing of that child, especially when it comes to the securing of breast milk in our modern society.

Modernizing the Sharing of Breast milk

Many of us are familiar with formal breast milk donation and the very importance of having this available. However, there are only currently 32 formal milk banks in the United States, with almost all donated milk going to preemies in the NICU, as it should. It is very difficult for parents not involved with a NICU to receive donated milk, and the process to become a donor or a recipient can be very time intensive. In an effort to ease this for families, options for informal sharing have become popular in the last decade.

Ironically, my involvement and interest in milksharing came before even becoming a parent myself. I was running one of the only pre- and postnatal yoga studios in Charlottesville, Virginia, where mothers flocked for community, companionship, and support.

What I witnessed during the years I ran that studio were women who carried a tremendous amount of stress, guilt and anxiety around feeding their babies.

If they couldn’t produce, for example, they were stressed about the necessity of feeding their baby formula.

If they overproduced, they were stressed about what to do with their excess “liquid gold” (as the parenting community calls breast milk).

I quickly became the town’s de-facto breast milk match-maker. I regularly fielded requests from moms who had too much milk and needed to donate, and moms who weren’t producing much and wanted to find donor breast milk.

I had an “a ha!” moment one night when I was brokering one of my many informal breast-milk share transactions for two friends, and a notification came in from the dating app Bumble telling me I had just matched with a new man.

From that moment, I knew that I had to make this dream a reality and launch a breast milk sharing app.

I founded Share the Drop, a platform for mothers with excess milk to donate to any family that needs it for their infants, with a strict stance that donors do not get paid for their milk. I wanted to get milk into the mouths of babies who need it, help families avoid the costly and time intensive nature of shipping milk, and aid in building community among users. 

During the final years of owning the yoga studio, I was diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. Now as a survivor, I want to prioritize fellow breast cancer survivors who are sourcing milk for their infant. I structured the app so donors don’t have to pay anything for their involvement and recipients pay a minimal monthly fee (which is waived for anyone who is WIC-eligible).

I also launched the “Feed It Forward” gift subscription program, which allows people to purchase gift subscriptions to Share the Drop, to eliminate any burden of cost associated with a subscription. 

Share the Drop is the first commerce-free app matching donors and recipients in real-time, like a dating app such as Bumble or a ride-share app like Uber. We lean heavily on remaining commerce free as we agree with major medical organizations that realize the inherent dangers that arise when we pay women for milk. 

As a mother, I very much understand the time and effort it takes to pump and store milk.

And I also understand that monetizing milk opens up the doors to fraudulent behavior in an effort to make money. One other key component of the app; we use geolocation technology in an effort to have donors meet local recipients, those in need in their own communities.

Is milk sharing safe? 

When handled and managed the right way, yes, milk sharing can be safe. That being said, there are potential health risks associated with milk sharing. These risks include the transmission of infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, cytomegalovirus (CMV), and syphilis, as well as exposure to medications, drugs, or contaminants that may be present in the donor’s milk. 

Share the Drop has created  branded guidelines which talk about this and very much compare it to dating—things like getting to know your donor, asking about dietary intake, lifestyle choices, how they are using sanitary measures to pump and store milk. 

We have added a feature where if donors are willing to share any recent lab work with recipients we add a medical icon to their profile. This allows recipients one extra measure of safety. We have a report button built into the app so users can report anyone on the app who seems to be there for nefarious reasons. We recommend meeting during the day, in public places to exchange milk as well. Users can purchase testing strips which can identify nutrients in donated milk and others that can test for alcohol. One last safety measure is home pasteurization, for those who want to eliminate concerns all together.

Can you use milk sharing to supplement?

Yes, donor milk can be used to supplement your own milk, or in conjunction with formula as well. Donor milk is not only for parents who are looking to give their children exclusively breast milk.

You can opt to use it however you see fit—creating a combination of formula and breast milk that works best for you and your child. 



Author

  • Kelly Cox

    Kelly Cox, E-RYT 500, RPYT, LCSW, birth doula As a registered prenatal yoga teacher and birth doula, Kelly has supported thousands of families through pregnancy, birth and parenthood. In her yoga studio, families connected over the trials and tribulations of pre/postpartum bodies, sleep training, partner relationships and of course, infant feeding. Taking note of her clients’ emotional well being, Kelly realized that feeding newborns created a wave of stress, pressure and often led to postpartum depression. She held weekly free lactation support groups and regularly helped match local families with an excess supply of milk to families in need. And as a breast cancer survivor, she gave particular attention to fellow survivors sourcing milk for their infants.

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