Why, then, do women potentially risk their little ones' well-being by engaging in informal milk sharing? For starters, the word is out that breast is best: Almost 75 percent of new moms leave the hospital breastfeeding their newborns, and some women are wedded to providing breast milk, even if it's not their own. There's also the issue of supply and demand. A doctor's prescription is required to purchase banked milk, so most of the precious fluid goes to babies with medical needs -- it's not always available to moms with low milk production or adoptive families. Then there's the whopping price tag: Milk banks charge as much as $5 an ounce, and while some insurance plans will cover a percentage of the cost, others don't.
Christin Lewin of Columbia, Maryland, knows all too well how the desire to nurse can become obsessive. Due to a car accident in which she suffered massive internal injuries, Lewin thought she would never be able to have a baby, let alone breastfeed. Fast-forward five years: Lewin did indeed conceive and deliver a daughter, Keira. "I told myself that I would try to breastfeed to give her the best start, even if I could only produce a tiny amount," recalls Lewin. "But Keira became jaundiced and dehydrated because my milk wasn't coming in. I was devastated, so my midwife suggested I look into donor milk from another mom."
Lewin turned to MilkShare, an online resource that connects milk-needy moms with donors. Unlike formal milk banks, MilkShare recommends but doesn't require screening -- so it's up to you to decide if you trust a mother's lifestyle or if you want her to undertake, at your expense, the blood work necessary to deem the milk disease-free. The upside: The milk is free of charge. MilkShare specifically discourages selling breast milk because it could tempt some donors to dilute their milk to increase profits.
Lewin posted her SOS on the site and received a response from Michele Leiberman, a neighbor with a son, Bryce, about Keira's age. Leiberman had been donating to the National Milk Bank, which meant she had passed its extensive screening tests.
The two moms met, Leiberman provided Lewin with her medical tests, and she began pumping extra milk after she'd fed Bryce. "It's been terrific," says Leiberman. "I love the reward of holding the baby I'm helping. It's much better than being an anonymous donor."
Not all doctors are against informal sharing. Pediatrician and Babytalk contributing editor William Sears, M.D., feels the superiority of breast milk is worth breaking the rules for. "This is not a back-to-nature, hippie-type movement," he insists. "It's what savvy moms who know the science are doing to ensure that their baby is getting the best." This father of eight solicited donor milk himself through the moms in his pediatric practice for an adopted daughter. "When our daughter Lauren arrived, all I could think was, 'She shouldn't be deprived of breast milk just because she's adopted,'" he recalls. Dr. Sears and his wife were no strangers to milk sharing. Prior to Lauren, Martha Sears had occasionally cross-nursed another daughter, Erin, with a mom friend and her son.
Milk sharing wisely means not only knowing the donor mom's health status but also closely matching donor milk to your baby's age. " A mother's milk is specific for her baby and changes as the baby grows," explains Karen Zeretzke, a New Orleans-based spokesperson for La Leche League International, an organization that promotes breastfeeding and supports regulated milk banks but cautions against informal sharing. "Donor milk may also pass along viruses, which a baby can't fight because he hasn't received that mother's antibodies."