"Milk machine" (Elizabeth/Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND)

Milk Sharing: What History Can Teach Us

Milk sharing has been in the news lately. In 2013, Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH analyzed over 100 samples of breast milk being sold online and found that 10% of the samples were contaminated with cow’s milk. Almost 75% of the samples contained disease-causing bacteria, presumably linked to poor collection and storage practices.1 As the results from these and similar studies make their rounds on internet news outlets, responses ranged from unsurprised sarcasm to outrage.

During this tumult, I made the unfortunate choice to participate in conversations on social media about the results of this study. When a local news station ran a piece on the study, responses to the article online ranged from “Ew gross, that’s like selling my ejaculate,” to “my kid had formula and is just fine, obtaining someone else’s breast milk is not necessary and these parents deserve what they got,” to “1000 ounces donated so far! Breast milk saves lives!” The media’s ignorance about the practice of milk sharing has done some damage: it has implied that breastfeeding advocacy has gone too far, resulting in parents who take risks to avoid formula that, to many, don’t seem worth it. Readers have agreed and have also concluded that lactating women have been taking advantage of naïve parents. Milk sharing, they have decided, is weird, unnecessary, and dangerous. The Anthro Doula has given this conversation some anthropological perspective. Now it deserves some historical perspective.

The exchange of breast milk for money has always been problematic. Unlike today, it initially had very little to do with the advent of artificial feeding that occurred in the 19th century. Traditionally, human milk was sold directly from the tap as families in need hired wet-nurses to feed their children. Even when wet-nursing was the only alternative to maternal breast feeding, and thus a matter of life or death, wet-nurses suffered harsh defamation. Sixteenth-century Italian poet Luigi Tansillo wrote that wet-nurses are “… soothed by no kindness, by no threats subdued, Perverse, lascivious, insolent and rude.”2 Eighteenth-century Scottish physician George Armstrong wrote, “Farther, a good wet-nurse is not always readily to be had, especially in or near great cities, where so many of them are given to drinking, and other vices; and the worst of them will fall upon means of procuring a good character from some hand or other.”3

Lithograph of a drunken wet-nurse about to give the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) alcohol. (Wellcome Library, no. 17727i | CC BY)
Lithograph of a drunken wet-nurse about to give the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) alcohol. (Wellcome Library, no. 17727i | CC BY)

I think it’s easy for historians to see how this dynamic betrays a deep-seated suspicion of women’s bodies and behaviors. Such suspicion goes hand in hand with the surveillance of women’s bodies that was commonplace in pre-modern eras. But it’s harder for us to see our own failings in this area. In many ways, contemporary suspicion about milk sharing suggests that little has changed. It belies our deep distrust in the behaviors and bodies of lactating women. They are accused of sub-par hygiene, perhaps because food safety rules are much less strict for breast milk than for pasteurized milks and infant formulas. They are sometimes accused of having some perverse desire to make money with their bodies, which historically and presently is related to prostitution. They are suspected of providing contaminated or diluted product. As it was with wet-nursing in the pre-modern world, some of these accusations are warranted. The study noted above is a case in point. Wet-nurses did sometimes underfeed or hand-feed their infants while taking money for nursing, just as some moms selling their breast milk have topped off their yields with cow’s milk or have gotten lazy about their collection hygiene.

But, as sensational journalism (and at times, sensational histories) tend to do, this story focuses on the extraordinary rather than on the ordinary, the exceptions rather than the rule. Most incidents of milk sharing in pre-modern eras, as well as most incidents of milk sharing TODAY, involve no exchange of money. In the medieval and early modern periods, women nursed other kids for neighbors or family. Even now, women pump for friends or acquaintances free of charge. This goes some way toward correcting the societal mistrust of lactating women and modern squeamishness that has prevented women from actually putting other people’s babies to their breasts. It is telling that the media, and that many histories, have chosen to focus on the instances of milk sharing that reinforce our mistrust of women’s bodies and intentions rather than those that mitigate them. Most of society is, apparently, not yet ready to endow lactating women with the same trust we have readily given to dairy and formula corporations (which have their own issues with ethics and hygiene, I might add).

One solution for advocates of milk sharing is lobbying for institutionalization and FDA-regulation of breast milk sales. This would ensure the safety of breast milk sales around the country. But it also reinforces the idea that lactating women cannot be trusted, that remuneration for their breast milk will encourage unethical practices. This kind of regulation may result in pasteurization of breast milk, a process that destroys many of its benefits. Lastly, the resources required to create this reality may cost recipients money and time that they can ill afford.

This is why non-remunerative milk sharing is so genius. There is an internal logic to milk donation. It removes money from the equation, which eliminates the temptation to engage in unethical practices. Women donating their excess breast milk are using the same milk to feed their own children. Therefore their desire to keep their own children healthy and disease-free is transferred to the babies to whom they donate their breast milk. Babies receiving these donations benefit from the donor’s antibodies in addition to all the other magical properties of breast milk. If the child drinks from multiple donors, these immunity benefits are even more significant. In this case there is, unfortunately, still the potential for unsanitary collection and storage, but these risks can be mitigated by education and by personal relationships between donors and recipients that encourage friendly accountability.

By far the best option, yet one that is much less common than it was historically, is for lactating women to feed babies in need directly from their breasts, free of charge. This can be done in a casual or scheduled manner, and can be combined with childcare, or not. It eliminates the risk of unsanitary collection and still boasts of the benefits of the internal logic of non-remunerative breast feeding. When babies nurse, they share antibodies with the nurse’s body as well as communicate to the body the need for more milk, so this kind of milk sharing benefits the nurse as well.

got-donor-milk-logo

I have participated in this kind of milk sharing. I have nursed my friends’ children. Most people stare at me, mouths gaping, when I share this, trying to wrap their heads around how I could do such a thing. Like it or not, most Americans still associate breasts and sucking with sex acts. Scientific research about the nutritional and developmental benefits of breast feeding has convinced us that “breast is best,” but for many this sentiment is riddled with exceptions and caveats. Let’s face it, women putting other women’s children to their breasts is taboo. Forget women selling their breast milk to fetishists and body-builders, or uneducated mothers in the third world giving their children watered-down formula because western influence has convinced them that their bodies are broken and their milk is inferior. Those things aren’t nearly as outrageous to most Americans as me feeding a child in need the same way I feed my own children. Scandalous! Skeevy! Just not “something we do.”

Despite mainstream disapproval, there are small communities of women who depend on this kind of milk sharing. When my friend was suffering from cancer and was unable to breast feed her daughter due to her chemotherapy, friends, myself included, nursed her daughter whenever they stopped by to visit or help around the house. The rest of the time, her beautiful girl took breast milk from bottles, which had been donated from women around the country.

Another time, I nursed a friend’s son during a growth spurt so that she could relax and have a couple glasses of wine, guilt free. Another girlfriend nursed him as well that night — she was returning the favor from when this tired mom nursed her young daughter when she was in the hospital for an emergency procedure. This night was more casual. We all got to hang out, see the baby, and give mom a rest. This kind of milk sharing, called cross-nursing, is not only good for the small growing bodies of our nation’s infants. It nurtures solidarity between mothers, those who breast feed and those who cannot or do not. It also works to correct societal mistrust of women’s bodies.

I look forward to the day when milk sharing, and specifically cross-nursing is just something people do — like changing a diaper or washing the dishes. It would be evidence of a society that trusts and values babies, women, and their bodies for all the right reasons, a society that respects a woman’s choice whether or not to use her body to feed her baby, and that offers practical solutions to give bottle-fed babies breast milk if their families so choose. It would be a society that cultivates trust and affection among families. But perhaps most simply, cross-nursing just makes sense.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Heather Wascak.

Notes

  1. Sarah Keim, “Cow’s Milk Found in Online Breast Milk,” 700 Children’s, April 6, 2015. Return to text.
  2. Luigi Tansillo, The Nurse, a Poem, Trans. Luigi Tansillo, (Dublin: Printed by B. Dornin, 1800). Return to text.
  3. George Armstrong, An Account of the Diseases Most Incident to Children, From the Birth Till the Age of Puberty; with a Successful Method of Treating Them. To Which Is Added, an Essay on Nursing: with a Particular View to Children Who Are Brought Up by Hand. Also a Short General Account of the Dispensary for the Infant Poor (London: T. Cadell, 1783), 155. Return to text.

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10 Comments

Maureen LaMarca

I am a breast milk donor. In fact, I donated MONTHS worth of pumped milk. I took as many precautions as I could with packaging the milk up believing my own child was going to have it in the bottle while I returned to work. With my first baby, I had to go back full time so knowing this, I started pumping and storing after a few weeks to make sure my baby would have enough milk. Thankfully, my supply was awesome and I didn’t need all of that milk stored up. I did donate some but a lot got tossed. It breaks my heart even thinking about the waste. It could’ve gone to someone else.

When I had my second child, I believed I was going back to work full time again. I started pumping and had excess. I donated 4 months worth of breast milk. I didn’t need it as I only had to work part time so my baby got direct from the breast milk most of the time.

In the cent that something happened to me and I couldn’t nurse another baby, I would gladly take donated breast milk! I would even be open to a friend helping me and my baby out by giving direct from the breast milk. I would do the same if a situation presented itself and all parties involved consented.

It baffles me the perversion that goes on in society, the misinformation, and often times pure ignorance. I appreciate this article very much. We can only hope as advocates that continued education and normalization happens!

Mary Miller

As a mom who has used donated breastmilk to feed my firstborn when I could not, and as a mom who has nursed other women’s children and also had other women nurse my own, I couldn’t imagine a more natural activity among lactating friends.

Marissa Rhodes

Sorry about that. I must have inserted the wrong link. I’ll take care of this!

Linda

When my father was an infant his mother had no milk and he did not tolerate cow’s milk. Her sister, who had a baby took him and for about a year nursed both as if she had twins. He would have died without this intervention. Such practices were common until social pressure began to insist on bottle feeding. I nursed my first child at a time when it was considered socially taboo to nurse. I later nursed siblings children, and had the incredible privilege to provide milk for a preemie nephew born at 26 weeks. I had such an abundance of milk (while nursing my own child also) that he never could use it. The hospital was excited to receive all the human breast milk I could provide and used it in the preemie intensive care nursery to help those tiny tiny babies survive.

Marissa Rhodes

Linda,

What wonderful stories! Thanks so much for sharing. Unfortunately NICUs (at least the ones near where I live) now care more about liabilities than they do about giving newborns breast milk. The same friend I mentioned in the article, who had cancer, experienced this failing. Her daughter was transferred to the NICU at a different hospital from where she was recovering from a cesarean and radical historiectomy and her friends rallied together to donate colostrum for her new baby. She was pumping but not getting much. The hospital refused to give the baby donated colostrum and threw it in the garbage. They may have even thrown out some of the mother’s colostrum as well, suspecting that it was not hers. We’re not sure. In a society as litigious as ours, it’s hard to get hospitals to honor mothers’ requests to give their children donated milk.

Beth

Yes this does happen. I too had to have a radical hysterectomy at time of c section and was in ICU so I told my hubby to contact my friends and doula to get donor milk. My doula brought some but t9ld hubby to tell the hospital that I had pumped it beforehand. They already knew I’d breastfed before up to 2.5 years so it was plausible. They didn’t ask hubby where the milk came from though.

Kaurina

In your discussion of the history of wet nursing, why didn’t you mention the issue of class? Isn’t the practice of wet nursing very involved with class and race?

Marissa Rhodes

Absolutely. In fact, class and race are the two most important themes in my research but there’s only so much one can fit in a single blog post. In my period the concepts of “class” and “race” did not exist as they do now since it was before Marx and before critical race theory. So that’s a whole other blog post for a whole other time. Plus, class and race relations are very context-dependent and I wanted to focus on the elements of wet-nursing that still occur today, albeit on a smaller scale. All that said, interracial wet-nursing relationships and the class differentials between wet-nurses and their employers is what makes this topic so fascinating!

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