Move Over, Milk Banks: Facebook and Milk Sharing

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Matthew Alan / Corbis

A breast-feeding mother with two babies

In one of the photos that keeps getting Emma Kwasnica's Facebook account suspended, the Montreal-based mother and breast-feeding activist is tandem nursing, with a newborn at one breast and a two-year-old at the other. Classical art and public health be damned, Facebook has censored countless breast-feeding photos for violating the company's terms of use, a policy that has inspired more than 250,000 people to join a Facebook group called "Hey Facebook, Breastfeeding Is Not Obscene!" Kwasnica has protested her four account suspensions by e-mailing administrators and keeps doggedly reposting photographs and organizing virtual "nurse-ins" via her Facebook group, Informed Choice: Birth and Beyond. But last month it occurred to her that the global breast-feeding community could use social media to organize real-world, offline "lactivism," in the form of milk sharing.

The result is a new network called Eats on Feets — a play on Meals on Wheels — that uses Facebook to connect women whose babies need supplemental breast milk to women nearby who have extra milk to give away. Shell Walker, a midwife in Phoenix, came up with the name and created the original page to facilitate local matches. But Kwasnica, who had already made several matches via her Informed Choice page, took the idea global, and in just a few weeks the network has grown to 98 local groups, spanning all 50 states in the U.S. and 22 countries. More than 70 matches have been reported so far, with milk coming not only in bags and jars, but also sometimes directly from the source.

Women have been sharing breast milk for eons (remember wet nurses?), but the practice has been stigmatized in modern society, especially in the age of HIV. Milk banks screen and pasteurize donated milk and give priority to premature and very ill babies, essentially preventing most families from accessing the milk. And for those who can get banked milk, it is often prohibitively expensive: $3 to $5 per oz., upwards of $100 for a day's supply.

Although informal milk sharing is not standard practice in the U.S., the World Health Organization recommends "raw" donor milk if a mother's own supply won't suffice. "Milk from another human in any manner that's safe from disease is the logical and healthiest next best," says Miriam Labbok, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of North Carolina and director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute.

Most women in the U.S. try to breast-feed, but many hit roadblocks. Facebook, however, is helping women turn to each other before they turn to formula. Jeannine Fisk of Eau Claire, Wis., knew she wasn't producing enough milk for her son when he was 4 weeks old and still not gaining weight. When a midwife suggested that she use donated milk, another mother who was at the birth center offered to pump some milk for Fisk right then and there. Fisk got another 5 oz. from a neighbor and found three more donors via the "Hey Facebook" page and Craigslist. She saw her son grow from wan to chubby, and within three months she was able to increase her own milk production. Now, she's donating her oversupply and administrating the Wisconsin Eats on Feets page.

Eats on Feets encourages women to make informed choices and provides information about risks and precautions, like flash-heating the milk. Research out of the University of California at Berkeley shows that a simple stove-top method kills bacteria and HIV. This makes milk sharing not so different from other feeding methods. "We need to be concerned with safety however we're feeding, whether we're using formula, goats' milk, breast milk," says Walker. "All of those need care and attention."

As more and more women recognize the benefits of breast-feeding, experts predict there will be more demand for human milk, particularly in the U.S., which is the only industrialized country that does not guarantee paid maternity leave — and thus makes it difficult for working moms to breast-feed their babies. In December, the FDA will hold a meeting on milk banking. "There are quite a few of us [in the public health community] who believe that we need to face it and do something about it," says Labbok. The virtual village, it seems, is one step ahead of them.