Breast milk sharing programs gaining speed, despite warnings

TORONTO – Pamela Hamill needed to feed her eight-month-old daughter Ziah. The mother couldn’t breast feed while her daughter couldn’t tolerate formula.

“She went through maybe six different formulas, she was on a prescription formula that was very expensive and she would just cry all the time,” Hamill told Global News.

While trying to research what was going on with her daughter, Hamill stumbled upon online communities of mothers across Canada sharing their spare milk with other parents in need.

Breast milk sharing sites are gaining in popularity – mothers organize groups via Facebook and even Craigslist to match up moms in need with those who have excess milk to donate.

But officials aren’t endorsing these programs, with Health Canada even stepping in with warnings.

“Health Canada has some concerns regarding the sharing of that kind of milk because it’s difficult to discern the source,” Helene Couture said. Couture works at the federal agency’s bureau of microbial hazards.

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In this unofficial milk swap, it’s unclear if moms take certain medications, how hygienic the conditions are in collecting the milk and if the milk is kept in proper temperatures, she warned.

“If somebody has AIDS or HIV these kinds of disease could be transmitted by breast milk. This product should not be shared freely without some kind of verification that the product is safe for the baby,” Couture said.

Still, groups such as Human Milk 4 Human Babies and Eats on Feets, are gaining speed worldwide. In Canada, certain regions, such as British Columbia, or even more specifically, Southwest Ontario, have more than 14,000 likes and plenty of discussion.

Stacey McCumber is one of those moms who offered her spare milk to others.

“I figured why not. I don’t want to throw it out – it is liquid gold so I’m going to give it to someone else that needs it,” she said.

The response was overwhelming.

“There was literally tens and twenties of people contacting me,” she said.

Another option that’s garnering attention across Canada is milk banks. There are only two in Canada – one just opened last year in Calgary, and the inaugural location is in Vancouver, but another is slated to open within weeks in Toronto and the facility has been proposed in Quebec.

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In milk banks, extensive testing is done on the donating mothers and the milk is pasteurized before it’s doled out to the sickest babies.

“We mainly service the hospitals,” Janette Festival, a registered nurse and founder of the Calgary milk bank, said.

Her concern is that when these moms turn to their own resources for donating, milk banks’ supply could dwindle down.

But moms, like Hamill, say their babies deserve access to milk too, and shouldn’t have to wait until the children are in hospital.

Hamill says she does her own screening, asking moms about their health condition and lifestyle.

“It’s changed her life. Basically, she is a new baby, she is thriving wonderfully,” Hamill said of her daughter.

In 2010, the Canadian Paediatric Society urged provinces to consider opening human milk banks.

Pasteurized breast milk donated from nursing mothers can save the lives of premature babies when their own mothers can’t produce enough milk, the organization said.

Studies have found breast milk is the best option when feeding newborn babies because it offers numerous benefits — from improved development to healthy growth patterns, and lower rates of infection.

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