When Jacqueline Ernst, a first-time mother, gave birth nine months ago, she realized that some babies can’t tolerate formula and have a vital necessity for human breast milk.
Her son, Grayson, was born eight weeks premature and Ernst, 27, initially fed him breast milk as well as formula. Grayson, however, had a bad reaction and staff at the William Osler Health Centre in Brampton, Ont., informed Ernst that her son is lactose-, milk protein- and soy-intolerant. Due to his condition, he cannot tolerate any type of formula.
“It made our decision that we were going to use breast milk a very obvious choice,” Ernst said. “We didn’t really have any other options.”
In Canada, many mothers donate breast milk informally. Donors and recipients find each other largely through online networks since only one breast milk bank exists in the country, Ernst said.
She searched online to find a network that helps breast milk donors and recipients connect.
“I knew that I had (leftover breast milk) in the freezer and we weren’t going to end up using it and it was going to expire,” she said.
Through the online network “Human Milk 4 Human Babies,” Ernst found a family requesting breast milk and donated to their baby daughter who, like Grayson, couldn’t tolerate formula.
Emma Kwasnica, who resides in Montreal, organized “Human Milk 4 Human Babies” about a year ago. Previously, she had encouraged mothers in need of breast milk to post requests on her Facebook profile page for anyone who could help. When this method thrived, Kwasnica, 33, realized breast milk donors and recipients needed a better way to connect.
The “Human Milk 4 Human Babies” network currently consists of 130 community pages worldwide, including pages for every Canadian province, Kwasnica said.
“We don’t set people up with each other; we don’t screen donors; we don’t provide bloodwork,” she said. “We trust that mothers are smart enough to figure this out for themselves.”
Kwasnica believes mothers wouldn’t put their babies in danger by taking breast milk from donors they don’t trust. She hopes women request blood records from donors and ask them screening questions before taking their breast milk.
“We’re not activists in the sense that we’re out there trying to convince people to do this,” she said. “We’re providing another option for families who have chosen to share breast milk.”
However, Dr. Gideon Koren, director of the Motherisk program at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, believes mothers who require breast milk need to obtain it through a controlled system that can test for the milk’s safety and quality.
According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, milk banking in Canada began in the early 1900s. However, many milk banks closed in the 1980s due to a growing fear of HIV transmission. Today, the only breast milk bank in Canada operates in Vancouver.
Canada needs more breast milk banks, Koren said. He believes the problem in creating them is in the government’s ability to provide sufficient resources for processing all the breast milk.
“We need to have advocacy to pull the government to do it,” he said. “I don’t believe that it’s safe to do it through social networks.”
Donated breast milk that has not gone through medical tests could contain traces of medication or infections, Koren said.
Stéphane Shank, a spokesperson for Health Canada, agrees that obtaining human milk from the internet or directly from individuals raises health concerns. Other dangers exist, in addition to the risk that the milk could be contaminated with bacteria or viruses, he said.
“Improper hygiene when extracting the milk, as well as improper storage and handling, could also cause the milk to spoil,” he said.
Nevertheless, many mothers continue to use online networks to obtain breast milk.
Stefanyie Hamilton gave birth to twins, Elijah and Aviyah, five months ago. She breastfed them since their birth; however, her breast milk supply began reducing significantly.
Hamilton, 32, found breast milk donors on the “Human Milk 4 Human Babies” network. She now drives from Hamilton, where she lives, to other cities throughout the province, including Toronto, every two to three weeks to pick up breast milk donations. She has received breast milk for her twins from approximately 30 different mothers over the past three months.
Hamilton has never asked donors to provide medical records; however, she talks to the women and asks questions about their health and lifestyle to ensure their milk is safe.
“(Breast milk donors) have to be nursing a child or have had a child to be able to produce it,” Hamilton said. “These women who are donating know the value of it. They’re not out to hurt my children; they’re out to benefit my children.”