As Vermont Mothers Share Breast Milk, Medical Providers Try To Reduce Risk

Jul 22, 2015

For many new mothers, breastfeeding is a boon. It’s healthy for them and for their babies. But some mothers have more milk than they can use, and others have less, or none. 

In past generations, women who did not have enough breast milk for their babies or who chose not to nurse them turned to wet nurses. These days, women still share milk – some even sell it – and many use social media as a market or bartering place. Doctors say that kind of casual networking can be risky. They urge women to get their supply only from hospitals working with breast milk banks that pasteurize and test every drop.

For mothers in need of milk, there are two very different ways to solve the problem. Some mothers search out other lactating women who can supply their babies with milk. You could see that as a modern variation on the wet nurse, a woman who breast feeds a child not her own. But if the wet nurse is a total stranger who sells her milk without having it tested, some medical providers worry that it could be unsafe.

The other option is to get breast milk from a bona fide bank, often through a hospital. But until recently, those sources have been scarce and hard to find.

So here’s what a Burlington mother named Topaz Weis did, about 10 years ago.

She had suffered a tragic loss. Her baby was stillborn.

“And it was 16 weeks old and I went home and was told basically, ‘That’s it, that’s the end.’ And all of a sudden I had breast milk. And they said, ‘You couldn’t possibly have breast milk; breast milk doesn’t come in until 20 weeks.’ And I said, ‘I got these pumpkins in front of my chest. What am I going to do about them?’” Weis recalls.

She pumped her milk incessantly and stored it in her freezer for the child she and her husband hoped to adopt. Four months later, they welcomed that baby, who was so hungry that she needed more milk than Weis had stored. So her lactation nurse made an introduction.

“And she hooked me up with another woman in town who was a nurse, and who had also had a baby and who had an abundant supply of breast milk. And her freezer was overflowing with it,” Weis says.

Topaz Weis hugs her daughter Kiki, who needed more breast milk than Weis could provide. She found other lactating mothers in the Burlington area willing to share their milk, and submit to blood tests.
Credit courtesy Topaz Weis

Weis became part of informal network of mothers who shared breast milk in the Burlington area. Some collected token fees. Others exchanged milk for services, such as child care. Weis made sure all her donors had their blood screened for disease, medications and harmful antibodies, and she got copies of those results.

“And I had a face-to-face relationship with the women who were supplying breast milk to my children,” she adds.

She still counts those latter day wet nurses as some of her closest friends. These days, though, more and more mothers are using Facebook and other social media to find milk donors. Weis prefers face-to-face meetings. But she believes there’s nothing wrong with the Internet marketplace, as long as all parties understand the risks of sharing a fluid that can harm, as well as help a baby.

Medical providers call this informal networking “casual sharing,” and many worry that the supply that passes from mother to mother could be tainted. Lisa Lamadriz, lactation specialist for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, notes that breast milk is a body fluid and that it could transmit medications taken by the mother — or worse.

“There’s a risk if you don’t know the donor of the milk,” Lamadriz cautions. “There’s a risk that parents are exposing their baby to HIV, hepatitis. So it's a risk.”  

To reduce that risk, Dartmouth-Hitchcock stocks lab-tested, pasteurized breast milk in their birthing centers for infants who cannot nurse from their own mothers. The supply comes from the Mother’s Milk Bank of Northeast, based in Massachusetts.

“To have access of donor milk on the birthing pavilion is quite progressive, and it’s something that I’m actually proud of the hospital for providing for patients," Lamadriz says.

The University of Vermont Medical Center now also stocks pasteurized breast milk, which it buys from a bank in Ohio.  

According to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, there are only about 19 periodically inspected breast milk banks in the United States. And now that the Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued formal recommendations to breast feed whenever possible, the demand for the breast milk — wherever it comes from — is growing.