Milk-Sharing: Is Another Woman's Breast Really Best?

I nursed Isabella until she was 13 months old. She took to breastfeeding right away, and I was very lucky that except for a bout of mastitis when she was six weeks old, we never experienced any problems. I can't say what I would have done if breastfeeding hadn't come as easily to us as it had. Plenty of my friends have had difficulties with it for one reason or the other, and their nursing relationships with their babies ended much sooner than mine did with Isabella.

However, as committed as I was to breastfeeding and giving my daughter the healthiest start possible to her life, if I did experience problems, I'm not certain I would turn to milk-sharing as the answer.

A recent article in BabyTalk magazine highlights a growing trend toward sharing breastmilk with other mothers. Some of these relationships are informal. For example, your child is adopted or you can't breastfeed for whatever reason, yet you still want your baby to experience the benefits of breastmilk. You locate another breastfeeding mother via MilkShare, an online resource that connects needy moms with those willing to donate expressed breastmilk to your child. Also, some mothers engage in "cross-nursing" with another mother, where you and she share breastfeeding duties for the two babies. Other relationships are more formal, whereby breastfeeding mothers who want to help other moms undergo screening to rule out communicable diseases, and then donate their milk to a milk bank for other mothers to purchase for their babies.

While I was nursing, I did consider donating my milk to a milk bank. I had seen a tv special about women who donated their expressed milk to organizations that then sent it on to mothers of children in developing nations who were too malnourished or who were working extremely long hours just trying to survive to breastfeed their infants themselves. The benefits of breastmilk for these starving babies was extraordinary.

But with regard to the other relationships, I can't really imagine engaging in a casual cross-nursing relationship with another woman, even a close friend, as some of the women in the BabyTalk article did. Those 13 months I spent nursing Isabella were much more than a six-times-a-day feeding ritual. We bonded during the long hours spent skin-to-skin. She played with my hands and gazed into my eyes. When I wasn't preoccupied by Roseanne reruns during her 3am feedings, I stroked her fine hair and sang to her. And I cannot imagine sharing her in this intimate way with another woman.

So, for me, while I can understand purchasing screened breastmilk from a milk bank for my child (although, according to the article, the cost is an insane $5/ounce), I don't think I would ever engage in the more casual milk-sharing relationship where the donor isn't screened unless you pay for her to have the tests done. And as far as cross-nursing goes, there's absolutely no way I could do it. Infant formula isn't crystal meth, and I think I would much rather bond with my baby by feeding her a bottle of formula than have another mother nurse her when I either could not or chose not to.

12 Responses to “Milk-Sharing: Is Another Woman's Breast Really Best?”

  1. # Blogger Jesser

    Yea, I'm not real comfortable with the idea of breastmilk banks or cross-nursing. About the only thing I can imagine is sharing breastmilk (pumped) with a close friend or family member. Anything else is a bit off to me. I try to be open minded about these sorts of things and of course there are benefits, but it would have to be pretty extreme before I went that route!  

  2. # Anonymous Ness

    Well, I get shot down for my oppinion regularly, so I'm used to it by now, but I'm a huge bottle fan. So much so that I didn't even try to breast feed the first time around. The second time around I was willing to give it a shot (seeing as this was probably my last pregnancy) but then circumstances around my c-section necessitated me being on certain meds that prevented me from trying. Honestly, I was not that heartbroken to have missed the opportunity like that. What people usually don't realise - or at least the more adamant breastfeeders (who will go so far as to SHUN people who don't) is that when you bottle feed, you still bond. They still stare longingly into your eyes, memorizing your every feature, and detail. They still hold onto you for dear life, and you fall in love with them over and over again during the process. The fact that it does not come from your boob does not make a difference to the bonding process. (IMO) Besides - again, what many BF moms fail to realise is that bottle feeding also allows your husband to experience this. I can't tell you how many times my hubby has fed our boys and then looked over at me, and said, "Wow, they're just SO amazing!" when he's experienced the gaga look in their eyes. Personally I think it's a great way to ensure that a child's father is more involved from the start - and it really gives mom a much needed break too. Even Grandma can get in on the action! So while I'd never say breastfeeding is bad - I will always argue with people who say it's the 'only' way.

    Oh and I SO wouldn't do the milkbank think either as in purchase breastmilk from another woman. I just couldn't. I reckon I could donate if I were in a position to if someone else needed it - no problem, but I couldn't give my child another woman's milk, in my very controversial oppinion I think that's totally weird :) Especially since I'm so aware of all the nutritional benefits of formula. (Braces herself for flame attack from la leche bloggers who read this :) lol  

  3. # Blogger Simply Mel

    ITO assisting malnourished kids in third world - I think that is awesome. I would donate to that as long as it wasnt sold. And if I was a third world mom I would give it to my children.

    However, being the privileged mom I breastfed all mine but am not anti-bottle per se. Just enjoyed it. I would not consider cross-nursing personally. Never. There is a huge 'ick factor' in it for me.

    Like Ness, I would happily have put my babes on formula if things had worked out differently.  

  4. # Anonymous Lis Garrett

    I get the heebie jeebies just thinking about someone else nursing my babies. Like you, Kristi, it's been a huge bonding experience, and quite honestly, I might feel Bridget is "cheating" on me (as weird as that sounds).

    Ness - I totally understand what you're saying. I primarily bottle-fed my two oldest children, and it was a great experience for all of us. My third, however, would never accept a bottle (or pacifier). And, I was really ready to try nursing. However . . . . THREE YEARS LATER and she's still nursing (can you hear the exasperation in my voice?).

    I might consider donating my milk, but I would never purchase it for my own. Although "breast is best," I have absolutely NO qualms about giving my kids formula.  

  5. # Blogger Mom24

    I completely agree. I think informal cross-nursing is wrong (and creepy). Breastfeeding is so much more than just a way to feed your baby. I bf two of my four, and I wish I had the support and confidence to breastfeed my other two as well. Yes, you can bond while you bottle feed, and I did, and I'm very close to all four of my children, but it's different when you breastfeed.

    I would definitely have used formula if I couldn't have breastfed my last two, but I also would have done ANYTHING to make breastfeeding successful once I'd experienced it. I wish more women got the support and encouragement they need to do it. I think attitudes in this country are still that it's gross, icky or backward, and that can make it pretty difficult to persevere.

    Lis--I think you probably know this, but at 3 there's nothing wrong with weaning her if you're done. I don't think breastfeeding should be something you continue if you really, really don't want to, especially once they reach the point where they're getting the bulk of their nutrition elsewhere. Then it's about something different, and that has to be mutually satisfying, imo.  

  6. # Blogger Sasha

    Hmmm... I am going to offer another opinion on this issue. I feel strongly that breast is best and while formula is not crack cocaine, there is no doubt that the breastmilk I gave my daughter for the first year of her life has contributed to her amazing immunity (knock wood) among other things.

    Breast milk is the best, most natural thing for a baby. That fact is indisputable. That said, formula can be a decent substitute, but either way it is a substitute.

    For years, babies were fed by wet nurses and while I would never advocate this as the full time method of feeding, I am quite overwhelmed by the task of nursing a newborn right now. I spent upwards of 12 hours a day nursing him and would love (LOVE) some relief.

    To be sure, I would be uncomfortable with the idea of cross nursing initially. I would have some trouble getting used to seeing another woman with my baby. I completely get what Lis is saying regarding "cheating."

    On the other hand, anything that would give me some relief without the guilt of formula would make me happy. I am not trying to insult moms who fed formula, but I have definitely bought into the research proving the multitude of benefits from breast milk (If I hadn't, how could I possibly justify the time commitment of breastfeeding:)??)

    I think cross nursing is a bit icky--at first. But given more open minds, I love the idea that another woman could give me help in that way. I believe it takes a village and my baby deserves to know that more people than just me can take care of him.

    As an aside, I recently heard such a beautiful story about a woman who died in childbirth and a good friend of hers who had recently had a stillborn. That friend nursed the baby for a year, providing pumped milk and even direct nursing at times. Could any gift be more profound or beautiful for both of them?  

  7. # Blogger Sugar and Ice

    We had a really, really difficult start with breastfeeding. It was just terrible. I'd say it took us a good 6-8 weeks to really get the true hang of it. She couldn't latch..we had ot use a nipple shield...she'd nurse for ninety minutes or more and then want to nurse again fifteen minutes later. Oh, and I got mastitis during that time as well. Ah, it was exhausting. However, we stuck with it, and we nursed exclusively until she was 12 months, and then about half and half with whole milk until she was sixteen months. So, I definitely know how hard it can be.

    As hard as we worked for it, and as wonderful as I think it is...I'd never cross nurse! I read that article as well and was a little shocked to hear that moms let other moms nurse their babies just so they can get a break. Why not pump and send a bottle to the babysitter's house? That's what I did after I went back to work when Lila was 4 months old. Screened milk banks are fine with me. I know a lot of micro preemie parents choose to do that to give the baby the most health benefits. I don't know that I'd do it personally, but I don't have a problem with it. However, if I had a friend who asked me to share nursing duty for her child so she could get some time to herself....I think I'd probably question her sanity.  

  8. # Blogger Pregnantly Plump

    When I was pregnant with Little Elvis, one of my friends emailed me an article about selling my breast milk to a bank. I was shocked at the amount of money they would pay, but didn't even really consider it. If they were paying that much, I have a feeling it wouldn't be donated to 3rd world countries.
    I also think the whole milk-sharing thing is odd. Not only would I not want Little Elvis to breastfeed from someone else, but I don't think I'd like breastfeeding someone else's child.  

  9. # Blogger sunShine

    Yeah I think if I would have had a problem brestfeeding the Babe, we just would have used formula. I know breastmilk is best, but is someone else's breastmilk best for my baby. That just sort of freaks me out a little bit. I am not judging anyone because I truly believe to each his own. I just don't think I would have been comfortable sharing breastfeeding my child with anyone else.  

  10. # Anonymous deedee

    I find it odd that we as a society think it's gross or odd or whatever to share breast milk, but heck, let's all - including older children and adults - drink a cow's lactat for our entire lives.

    This goes along the same lines of people being offended by seeing women breastfeeding in public.  

  11. # Blogger Shannon

    I got all the same benfits of bottle feeding Lorelei as if I had nursed her from my boob... but I also had the great benfit that I could kick Jeremy out of bed to get her bottle and I would feed her lol... do I wish she would of liked my boobs to try to nurse sure... but she hated them and we moved on lol...

    But cross nursing etc doesn't bother me... it is what they did in the past if someone couldn't nurse... hence wet nurses... but if someone wants to feel like a cow and nurse my kid... go for it lol... but then again... i'm strange lol...  

  12. # Blogger annalisa

    I just have to put in my 2 cents. I nursed all 3 of my kids and with the last pumped to get my milk going while he was in the NICU (due to a duodenal atresia) and had alot of extra. Well the day before my son was discharged 3 triplets were born 4 months early.. So small that holding them was painful to the babies. Well long story short their mom was unable to produce enough milk for them and the formula was so hard on their little premature bodies, it consitpated them and gave them gas. I felt that it only right to look into donating all the extra milk that i had. I tell you I have never felt better about any decision that I have evern made. The triplets are now 10 months old and still have issues, i still donate milk to them and it is used as a natural laxative, it keeps them from getting to constipated. I don't think that there is one thing wrong mothers have done it for years and knowing that those babies suffer less because of it... well that is a feeling that i could never put into words  

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