Milk Share: The Alternative to Breastfeeding Alternatives

We do know one thing for certain, and that is that breast milk is designed for babies.  It’s what they’re meant to eat; more than that, it’s what they’re meant to eat exclusively for about six months and then in conjunction with other foods as they wean (a process that, when left to its natural devices, takes years.)

Of course, the reality of our circumstances doesn’t always fall into perfect step with design. And for an unfathomably long list of circumstantial reasons, any given mother might find herself in a position where breastfeeding her own baby is not fully feasible. It’s not a personal failure; it’s just a rotten string of luck.

Perhaps she didn’t receive adequate support or education (remember: breastfeeding is natural, but often doesn’t come naturally).  Perhaps she suffers from hypoplastic breasts.  Perhaps she had a mastectomy.  Perhaps hormonal imbalances make her milk supply unreliable.  Perhaps she had to return to work to support her family and her breasts don’t respond to the pump.  There’s a long list of reasons, and these women need answers, too.

A Mother’s Question

I receive a lot of questions each week, mostly about cooking and sometimes about other topics related to feeding families and babies.  And you’re always welcome to contact me (facebook works best), and I will do my best to respond.  Occasionally, however, there’s a question that I feel is so important that it warrants a full post so that my response can better help other readers as well.  This week, one arrived in my inbox.

We are looking into adoption, and I will need to make a homemade formula for my baby. Even if I can nurse a little, I won’t have enough to supply the baby and I dont want to try to do a donor bank. I found a recipe on another WAPF site, but she recommends raw milk. Even the farms that sell raw milk do not suggest giving it to a baby under 1 year of age. Even though I drink it, I don’t feel comfortable giving it to my baby. I’ve heard of culturing low-temp pasturized milk. I think I can get that at Whole Foods, but I’m not sure. Do you have any recommendations? I know there are about 12 or 13 other ingredients that go into it too.  – Caroline.

Recently, as Caroline indicated, there’s been a lot of emphasis in traditional foods circles on the use of homemade infant formulas using raw milk or liver for feeding babies whose mothers cannot nurse.  And while these homemade formulas produce beautifully healthy babies; we need to remember two things: 1) traditional peoples weren’t whipping up concoctions of liver or raw milk and cod liver oil to feed babies when mothers couldn’t nurse, and 2) the macronutrient and micronutrient profiles of homemade formulas differ dramatically from human breastmilk. That said, many parents whose circumstances require they use an alternative to human breast milk report that their children thrive on these formulas.

There’s another, often ignored, alternative.

What to Do When You Can’t Breastfeed Your Baby

Increase Your Milk Supply or Induce Lactation

In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price describes how mothers he studied who adhered to traditional diets had little difficulty maintaining abundant milk supplies for their babies well past a year.   Most women, given adequate support, will not need to supplement their milk supply.  That’s little consolation, of course, to the women who do need supplementation.

Traditional peoples and modern breastfeeding mothers often seek galactoloques to help boost a waning milk supply.  In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price outlines how mothers were often given special foods – not only nutrient-dense organ meats like liver, grass-fed butter and fish roe whose nutrients passed through the mother’s milk to her nursing baby, but also cereal grains which were thought to support a healthy milk supply such as quinoa.

common herbal galactologues

Sometimes, lactogenic herbs are all you really need to boost your milk supply.  It’s also important to note, that your milk supply might be fine and your baby might just be in the middle of a growth spurt or other developmental phase in which he or she is nursing a lot.  If you believe you really do suffer from low milk supply, it’s best to seek consultation with a lactation consultant or seek support.  Kellymom.com is a fantastic and thorough resource for breastfeeding mothers.
Even if you’re an adoptive mother, you might look into inducing lactation or relactation.  Many adoptive mothers, with the help of an SNS, herbal galactologues and pumping find that they can nurse their adopted maybes at least partially.  It’s challenging, and not the right choice for every family, but it is possible to nurse your adopted baby.

increasing milk supply: my experience

When my son was born, it took a while for my milk to fully come  in – a week, exactly.  Then it came in with abundance.  Knowing I would have to return to work (at 4 weeks post-partum, part time and at 6 weeks post-partum, full-time) to support my family, I began expressing breast milk right away so that I could train my breasts to respond to the pump.

I had an overabundant supply and was able to donate to the Mothers Milk Bank of Colorado; however, as my son reached 9 months, my body stopped responding to the pump  and while I could nurse him from the breast without issue, I needed a boost to supply him with all the milk he needed while I was not at home.

Mother Love More Milk Tincture coupled with Vitanica Lactation Blend (a recommendation of my naturopath) and plenty of herbal tea helped me to boost my milk supply enough that I could continue pumping enough milk for him through 11 months when I retired the pump (we had a large enough freezer stash to last him until 12 months), but I continued to nurse him until he self-weaned at 3.5 years.

Look into Private Milk Sharing Arrangements

If boosting your milk supply or relactation doesn’t seem effective for you, then consider a private mother-to-mother milk sharing arrangement.  While milk sharing has fallen out of favor in the last century, wet-nursing was once the first choice for mothers who couldn’t nurse their own babies.

In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Price describes an incident in which a young mother died, and her own mother who was also nursing an infant at the time boosted her milk supply so that she could nurse not only her own child, but the orphaned infant as well.  Until humans developed alternatives to human breast milk for babies, wet nursing and milk sharing was the way infants survived when mothers couldn’t nurse.  Sometimes, mothers would be forced to feed their babies straight cow’s or goat’s milk, but the results were less favorable for children.

Indeed, the World Health Organization, recommends that a child be fed its own mother’s milk first and if that is unavailable, the milk of another nursing mother before the baby is fed infant formulas.

modern-day milk sharing

No, we don’t live in wandering tribes any longer, and finding a nursing mother to share her milk with your baby seems like an impossibility – or too “out there.”  But, realistically, is it more “out there” than feeding a human baby a dried processed powder of conventional cow’s milk, synthetic vitamins and corn syrup solids?

Communicable disease, adequacy of the mother’s diet and expense seem to be the chiefest concerns for those looking into milk share arrangements.  Most mothers who are nursing are in relatively low-risk groups for communicable diseases; however, you can request regular medical screenings for potential diseases.  Communicating with a potential donor about diet, medications or other concerns is essential, particularly if your baby is sensitive to gluten, dairy or other foods that are passed from mother to child via breast milk (don’t expect a donor to adjust his or her diet to meet your requests).  It is unethical for your donor to ask for compensation for the time spent expressing milk or for the cost of the milk itself; however, you should reimburse your donor for milk storage containers and shipping (if shipping is necessary) and these costs vary.

It’s important to remember that this is also an option for babies, and it is too often ignored.

resources for milk sharing

my experiences as a milk donor

As I wrote earlier, when my milk came in after the birth of my son – it came in with abundance.  I soon had far more milk than he needed, and sought to contribute the excess to other mothers and babies in need.  Of course, mother-to-mother arrangements were even scarcer then than they are now, so I opted to donate my excess milk to the Mother’s Milk Bank of Colorado.  And I donated gallon upon gallon.  The milk bank tested and pasteurized the milk, then provided it to babies in the NICU.

At about nine months after my son’s birth, my breasts no longer responded to the pump as they had previously done and I began to struggle to provide him with adequate expressed milk for when I was at work, let alone providing extra for the milk bank.  About that time, the milk bank “retired” me as a donor – milk changes fundamentally over the course of infancy and the milk a mother’s breast produces for a newborn is fundamentally different from the milk produced for an older infant or toddler.

In the end, I wouldn’t hesitate to donate milk again – either to a milk bank or directly to a mother.  It was a deeply rewarding experience.

A Note about Homemade and Other Infant Formulas

Lastly, remember that the ultimate goal is to feed your baby – however you come by that.  And while the traditional foods movement is all abuzz with talk of homemade infant formulas for babies of mother’s who can’t nurse, it’s important to realize that these formulas are not without their risks, and there is an alternative to this alternative: milk sharing.

Whether you nurse your baby, feed a homemade or commercial formula, or seek donor milk, the most fundamental thing to remember is that your baby will be well fed, and babies can thrive through all these choices.