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Milk Banks: The Wet Nurse of 2017?

Breastfeeding is an ancient skill that has been practiced by mothers from all walks of life since the beginning of time. For centuries, mothers relied upon a time-honored system to feed our infants. The food was free and perfectly designed.

Multiple social factors, including a focus on science and technology, the changing role of women’s lives, and our ability to treat infections with antibiotics, led us in a new direction. In the 1960’s, we abandoned breastfeeding and human milk without a smidgen of research to validate the change. Almost overnight, infant feeding became a $4 billion a year industry.

Going backwards is always difficult. The society we left in 1960 is not the society of 2017. When public health and medical experts made the concerted decision to reverse the tide and encourage mothers to return to breastfeeding, did they stop to think of the multitude of modern barriers to breastfeeding?

If a mother is lucky, she can stay home with her baby for the first six months, her baby will latch beautifully, her breasts will make enough milk, and she will be comfortable nursing wherever her baby is hungry. The trick is that not all mothers are so fortunate.

Did those experts realize how hard it is to breastfeed in a country that does not provide paid medical leave? Or a country with epidemic rates of obesity and diabetes? Our bodies may be designed to breastfeed, but high rates of obesity and diabetes translate to a low milk supply for many moms. Multiple factors mean that many moms are unable to provide 100% breast milk for their babies. Some are management issues, like returning to work or school, or poor information and support. Some are physical issues, like breast surgery, PCOS or hypoplasia.

The message that breastfeeding is good (which means if you are a good mother you will breastfeed) is impossible to separate from the message that formula is bad. And when formula becomes bad, what do you do if you are a mother who does not make enough milk?

MilkWorks opened a Milk Collection and Outreach Center (aka Milk Depot) in April to support the Denver Milk Bank, one of 18 milk banks in the United States and Canada. Milk Banks collect screened, donated milk from breastfeeding mothers who have extra milk. They pasteurize it and provide it to other mothers for their babies. Milk banks are like the wet nurse of the year 2017, except the milk comes frozen in a glass jar.

The disadvantage to banked, pasteurized milk is that it is expensive. Compared to the price of cow’s milk formula, it is the designer purse that is way out of reach. It is not possible as an affordable option for most parents. MilkWorks became a milk depot in order to increase the amount of milk donated to the Denver Milk Bank, one way we can all help the cost of banked milk to decrease.

Why doesn’t MilkWorks encourage direct sharing of mother’s milk? Partly because we don’t have research on the handling and transfer of pumped milk between mothers. Partly because it is tempting for mothers to arrange milk transfer via the internet from mothers they don’t know. Partly because mothers have been using cow’s milk formula for over 60 years and it is a known commodity among health care providers.

This doesn’t make formula right, nor wrong. What it means is that we must push for a network of screened, donated, pasteurized milk for any baby who needs it. Mothers who do not have their own milk to feed their baby should not have to hunt for human milk. They don’t need to lose sleep over a low milk supply.

Mothers have done some pretty miraculous things throughout history. I have no doubt that making human milk available for all our babies is within our grasp. Our country has developed a vaccine for polio, landed on the moon, and perfected heart transplants. Who says we can’t develop a widespread system for banked milk and screened wet nurses? It’s time to think big and think milk. Our moms and our babies deserve it.