The government may not condone it, but there is a ready supply of breast milk available and more mothers should be aware of it locally, says Hamilton breast milk donor Jacqueline Crockford.
The 26-year-old mother of two is a member of the Facebook page Human Milk 4 Human Babies, and in the past two years has used the site to donate her breast milk to three different mothers in need locally.
"I've donated 5,000 ounces of milk!" says Crockford.
Human Milk 4 Human Babies is a global network that acts as an online bulletin board for women who have excess breast milk or who need it, says Vancouver-based founder Emma Kwasnica.
The network only provides a forum for women in need to contact those who are willing to donate their breast milk; it doesn't facilitate the process or monitor the interaction, explains Kwasnica.
"They are on their own. They work it out," she says.
Working it out includes asking donors about their health status, and other factors related to the milk and its transfer.
"These women are asking the hard questions."
How donation works
The network, which has been around for two years, is active in 50 countries and has 130 community pages. Crockford is a member of the Southwestern Ontario page, which serves Hamilton and surrounding regions.
Crockford, who produces what she calls an "excessive amount of breast milk," learned of the network when a Facebook friend forwarded her a link to the Human Milk page two years ago.
'It makes me feel good that they're not getting formula and that they're getting the nutrition they need.' —Jacqueline Crockford, breast milk donor
Eager to help out, she went on the site and posted that she had extra milk and was looking for takers.
Crockford soon heard from a woman who wasn't able to produce breast milk for her baby, a common situation she says. All three of the women she's helped have been in the unfortunate position of either not being physically able to breast feed or don't produce sufficient milk to nourish their baby.
The process of donation is fairly straightforward. Crockford pumps her breast milk into bags and then freezes it. She either drops the bags off to the women and their babies at their homes, or the women come to her. She said she's established a personal relationship with the mothers and their babies.
"We keep in contact on Facebook and email."
Crockford has helped feed babies for as long as six months to a year, she said. Pregnant with her third child, she has every intention of continuing to donate her extra milk.
"I love it; it's so amazing," she said.
"It makes me feel good that they're not getting formula and that they're getting the nutrition they need."
But there are some health concerns about informal milk sharing setups, cautions Eileen Shea, a lactation consultant with the McMaster Department of Family Medicine.
Canada's official milk banks screen the milk and pasteurize it, she says, but there are no such procedures in mother-to-mother scenarios.
'Breastfeeding promotes optimal infant growth, health and development and is recognized internationally as the best method of feeding infants. However, unprocessed human milk should not be shared.' —Sara Lauer, Health Canada
"The problem with informal [breast milk banks] is you don't know who you're getting it from," she says, adding that donors could be using alcohol or drugs or be afflicted with health conditions that may negatively affect the milk, for example.
"You really have to trust the person [donating]," she says.
Shea's concerns echo those of Health Canada.
"Breastfeeding promotes optimal infant growth, health and development and is recognized internationally as the best method of feeding infants. However, unprocessed human milk should not be shared," Health Canada media relations officer Sara Lauer wrote in a statement to CBC News.
"There is a potential risk that the milk may be contaminated with viruses such as HIV or bacteria, which can cause food poisoning. In addition, traces of substances such as prescription and non-prescription drugs can be transmitted through human milk."
Crockford says that all of the women she donated to asked her questions about her lifestyle and health before taking the donated milk.
"They ask what medications I'm on, if I'm doing drugs, if I'm breast feeding my kids," she says.
Mothers left out in the cold
Kwasnica, who is also a breastfeeding activist, points out that Human Milk 4 Human Babies fills a gap in post-natal care. Canada currently has three official milk banks in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto, but they only serve premature babies.
"No one is serving the healthy-weight, full-term babies," she says.
Attie Sandink, an RN and Hamilton-based lactation consultant who has been working in private practice for 30 years, says the current official milk-bank system leaves many women who can't breast feed their babies "out in the cold" when it comes to access to breast milk.
Her view of breast-milk sharing, a practice which she says is more common than people think, has changed over the years.
While concern about the potential contamination of a donor's milk is natural, she adds that this concern should be tempered by the fact that today many women undergo fairly extensive prenatal screening that would flag such issues early on.
She says concern about breast milk donation is important, but that there should be more — or at the very least equal —concern about the makeup of formula.
"Nobody really talks about the risks of what's in formula," says Sandink.
Kwasnica wonders why Health Canada is only concerned about milk sharing rather than overall milk quality.
"Is this really a health concern for Health Canada? If so, why aren't mothers universally being tested like this? Why is it only when they want to share?"
Kwasnica wonders, for example, why Health Canada isn't concerned about how women store their milk generally. Rather than warn against milk-sharing, Kwasnica thinks Health Canada would better serve public health by issuing safe milk-sharing guidelines. For example, Sandink mentions support for the effectiveness of flash-cooking methods that can reduce potential contamination.
"What about thousands of women who express milk and go to work and leave it for a caregiver?" she asks.