Sharing breast milk: Should you ever nurse someone else’s baby?

A flight attendant made news this week when she breastfed a passenger’s baby after the mother ran out of formula milk.

The Philippines Airlines crew member shared a Facebook post about the “special” experience, which has been liked nearly 150,000 times.

While many were quick to comment online how kind the act was, some pointed out that unless the passenger knew the flight attendant’s medical history, letting a stranger breastfeed your child is risky.

“There is a Health Canada warning against informal sharing of human milk,” said Dr. Sharon Unger, an attending neonatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and the medical director at the Rogers Hixon Ontario Human Milk Bank.

“The warning is largely based on the transmission of bacteria and viruses.”

Risks of strangers sharing breast milk

Informal milk sharing refers to breastfeeding someone else’s child, sharing milk with strangers, or other methods outside of donating through an official bank. While the practice of wet-nursing has been around for centuries, breastfeeding a child you don’t know poses health risks.

“Viruses can be transmitted through breast milk; you can transmit the serious ones like hepatitis and HIV, but there are other much more common viruses, too,” Unger told Global News. “One that we look for is CMV, which causes a flu-like illness.”

Outside of viruses, Unger explained that there’s lots of bacteria in human milk, which is meant to be shared between mother and baby.

“That’s one of the first ways a baby is colonized with bacteria, within a mother-baby pair,” she said. “Every mother has a different set of bacteria in their milk and that’s different from person to person.”

According to Health Canada, traces of substances like prescription and non-prescription drugs can also be transmitted through human milk. In July, a Pennsylvania woman was charged with criminal homicide for the death of her 11-week-old son after an autopsy showed the baby had died from drug-contaminated breast milk.

But even for women who don’t let strangers breastfeed their baby, seeking milk from unregulated sources could expose their infant to harm.

In recent years, parents have turned to milk sharing groups on sites like Facebook where women who have excess milk pass it on to women in need. Unger cautions against this.

“There have been cases where it’s not even human milk that gets sent along,” she said. “Or it may be a woman [sharing milk] who smokes cigarettes. When you share over the internet, you just aren’t certain who is sending the milk.”

Why women share breast milk

Of course, not all women are able to breastfeed. There can be issues with milk supply, illness, or other health concerns. But if a woman requires outside milk, Ungar says it’s safest to get it from a source that screens and pasteurizes donations. That way, it’s quality controlled.

For women who have an excess of milk and want to share, Ungar encourages them to donate through a milk donation centre like Rogers Hixon Ontario Human Milk Bank, which supplies milk for sick infants. Milk banks screen donors for diseases and any potential health risks in a similar way blood banks do.

“There are certainly women who will have a surplus, and if they’re not aware of [milk banks], they may go this informal route,” she said.

“I would ask them to consider donating to a milk bank, because in so doing, they are giving their milk to the most vulnerable babies.”

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