In yet another instance of an Internet-driven social phenomenon, a growing number of women in the U.S. are joining on-line breast-milk-sharing communities. Their aim is to provide human milk to new mothers who can't breastfeed their babies. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings about the potential health risks of this practice, advocates sing the praises of both breast milk and their online community.
Lindsey Ward, 23, has two children. Because she isn't able to produce enough breast milk, she fed her first child formula. But when her second baby, Joshua, arrived nine months ago, she decided to give him the best of all baby foods: human breast milk.
"When he is ready to eat I take one of these out and put it in cold water so I can thaw it out," said Ward. "Right now, I have milk from three different women in this freezer."
For the past 9 months Ward has used breast milk from 15 women. She met them through a variety of Internet-based social networks, and online breast-milk sharing groups such as Eats on Feets, and MilkShare.
"What I would do is I post on the [Facebook] 'wall' something like 'I need milk for my 9-month-old son,'" Ward explained.
And within a few hours, women respond. They chat online; they agree to meet to pick up the bags of frozen milk. No money changes hands. Ward says her baby has been healthy and gained weight normally on his breast-milk diet. She says she's also made great friends, like Amanda Brewer.
Amanda has four children and has breastfed them all. She became a member of Eats on Feets when she had to stop feeding her two month-old baby temporarily because the dairy milk she was drinking was passing through her own milk and triggering an allergic reaction in her baby.
"So we found two donor moms who didn't drink dairy either and so they donated to him for two weeks," Brewer called.
After two weeks off dairy, she was able to feed her baby again. But in the meantime, because her breasts were still producing milk, she pumped and stored it for donation.
Since then she has been both a donor and recipient.
There are many reasons to give or receive breast milk. Heidi Briguglio, the Washington DC regional coordinator for Eats on Feets, had a personal reason for founding the chapter: "I was adopted when I was a baby, I was three days old and my parents adopted me. My mother would have done this for me," she explained.
Briguglio has always breast fed her 19-month-old baby Azure and has not donated milk yet. She says the number of lactating women joining breast milk-sharing communities online is growing worldwide.
As these groups proliferate, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning against feeding babies with breast milk obtained from donors not screened for infectious diseases.
Dr. Stephen Wall, an adviser for the international organization Save the Children, supports breast milk-sharing, but he echoes the FDA warning:
"The benefits of breast milk, over formula have been demonstrated for pre-term babies, so there is a benefit in having breast milk, but only in the setting where that baby can be provided that safely without risk of infection and without risk of contamination," noted Wall.
Some of those risks include the Hepatitis B or C viruses, and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But milk-sharing groups like Eats on Feets believe the safety issue is an individual responsibility.
"The responsibility for safety and knowing their source, getting information about how they want to handle the milk is up to the mothers themselves," Briguglio explained.
For Lindsey Ward and Amanda Brewer, as for many other women meeting through the Internet and sharing their breast milk with many babies, it's a matter of trust and mother's instinct.