I have often mused that there are thousands of ounces of pumped breastmilk in the freezers of mothers in my city alone, some of which they might not ever need. What if it could be offered to babies whose mothers were not able to provide a full milk supply? I became a Certified Lactation Counselor in 2001 and heard of milk sharing over the years; I knew it had its supporters and its critics, but I did not know the details of how it was actually being practiced in real life. A few years ago, Emma Kwasnica and I met as childbirth advocates on Facebook, and recently I had the chance to learn more about her organization, Human Milk 4 Human Babies. I was moved by the mission of the project and the reach it has had in just a few years -- mothers from 52 countries have participated in "informed milk sharing" through HM4HB. Below, Emma explains the history of the organization.
In October 2010, the news that an online health guru had plans to market his own brand of powdered infant formula sparked outrage amongst mothers and activists. Emma Kwasnica, a Montreal-based activist, saw this as her “catalyst” and she decided to fight back. Emma is the owner of the popular Facebook group “Informed Choice: Birth and Beyond” and she had already been using her large personal network to source donor milk for babies in need via her Facebook profile page.
On October 27, Emma launched a call to action: a global milksharing network. The response was overwhelming, as over 200 women volunteered to start up and administrate local milksharing pages. They worked tirelessly to set up a global network where families in need of breastmilk could connect with women with a surplus. The announcement of yet another infant formula to hit the market was indeed the last straw; mothers worldwide were no longer willing to sit idly by and accept the continued assault against all babies' birthright to be nourished exclusively with human milk.
Wet-nursing and other forms of human milksharing have existed across all human cultures and throughout history. In today’s world, with breastfeeding rates extremely low in most parts of the world and aggressive infant formula marketing campaigns, we had lost the tradition of milksharing. The announcement of a milksharing network was received with enthusiasm by parents that could then use the Internet to build local milksharing communities. Within a very short period of time, those communities flourished and grew with very little assistance from their administrators.
Over the following months, milksharing slowly became part of mainstream discourse and donor milk began to be included as a viable alternative for infant feeding. The simple idea that human babies need human milk to thrive -- and that breastmilk is not some sort of scarce commodity but a free-flowing resource -- exists once again.
Milksharing was happening between families making informed choices and this attracted the attention of many media outlets; our Facebook-based network quickly became famous. While the response from users was very positive and encouraging, the extensive media coverage lead to some concern within government agencies, prompting both Health Canada and the FDA to issue warnings about the potential risks of milksharing. Operating under the principle of informed choice, our network stood its ground and our community page members continued to share breastmilk, weighing their options and mitigating risk.
In March 2011, the vast majority of the volunteer page administrators agreed to move forward as a network under a new, more accessible name: 'Human Milk 4 Human Babies'. These administrators successfully moved their respective communities over to new 'Human Milk 4 Human Babies' pages and the network continues to grow.
HM4HB has a presence in 52 countries around the world. There are 130 Facebook community pages and over 20,000 community page members. These virtual communities are run by 300 hardworking, multicultural administrators who lovingly and graciously volunteer their time to keep HM4HB continually focused on its mission, vision and values. Through our pages, hundreds of babies in need receive breastmilk every single day.
We wish to thank the thousands of generous mothers who express and donate their breastmilk, as well as those who breastfeed other women’s babies when there is a need. Without them, society would never have recovered wet-nursing and milksharing as the vital community traditions that they are. These women have made modern milksharing a reality.
To learn about the activities of the HM4HB milk-sharing network in your area, visit http://www.hm4hb.net/communities.html.