Breast milk sharing is experiencing a revival, with Australian mothers using online communities to help feed their newborns with human breast milk.
The Facebook milk-sharing network Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB) is a steadily-growing community with 4000 members in Australia and more than 11,000 in the US.
The website puts mothers with a surplus of breast milk in touch with those struggling to breastfeed and who do not want to use formula.
For one user called Lisa, it was a breast cancer diagnosis that meant she would never be able to feed her unborn daughter.
"I investigated all of the drugs I would be on after Alice was born, trying to find some way to go back to breastfeeding after chemo was over. But my treatment includes a year of a drug that is totally incompatible with breastfeeding and several more years of hormonal therapy which would make it impossible to breastfeed," she said.
"One day, I was sitting with a co-worker when she mentioned that her sister had overproduced breast milk and had built up a huge freezer stash. 'Maybe I will produce extra, too,' she said. 'Maybe I could give you milk for your baby.' And that is how milk sharing began for us."
So why go to the trouble when formula is available?
Breastfeeding expert Dr Jennifer James, from RMIT University, is an advocate of milk-sharing and says formula should be considered a last resort when breast feeding is not possible.
"If you look at mother's own breast milk as the optimal, expressed milk second best, fresh donor milk and pasteurised donor milk — and then artificial formula," Dr James told ninemsn.
"Probably the biggest plus for breast milk is that there is added protection for the child through breast milk … while formula provides only the very basic nutrients."
The most common argument is the risk of disease from using unscreened donors— the main reason wet nursing all but ended during the 1980s.
Dr James says the risk of transmission of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV, from sharing breast milk is minimal.
"You need to look at the women doing the practice. They're breastfeeding their own babies and have a surplus of milk — because they are already breastfeeding, their lifestyle and their level of health is already known. "The risk is really quite minimal," she said.
Through Facebook communities in every state, women can privately contact donors close to them and collect the milk — and in some cases have it shipped to them.
"It is not like blood in that it needs to be specifically matched for a baby. It will still do the job," Dr James said.
Latrobe University associate professor Lisa Amir said the risks are small compared to wet nursing, which people still confuse with milk sharing.
"There is a difference between wet nursing and breast milk sharing which ought to be specified, but what we are talking about is someone who has extra milk wanting to give it away," Dr Amir said.
"Wet nursing is feeding another person's baby from the breast, in which case infection can be passed to the baby but also to the wet nurse.
"I wouldn’t want people to think [milk sharing] is something really risky"
Contamination of milk with alcohol and drugs also poses a small risk when using unscreened donors.
"That’s the kind of thing you don’t know for sure if the milk comes anonymously. But the likelihood is small.
"The kind of person who is expressing milk, they are unlikely to have high blood alcohol content."
She said most mothers would take basic precautions when storing and freezing milk.
Visit the HM4HB Facebook page
Your say: Would you give your baby a stranger's breast milk? Share in the comments below.
Author: Philippa Lees
Approving editor: Rory Kinsella.