Thousands of women are sharing their own breast milk via social media groups. The mothers are doing so in an effort to help others, according to a BBC investigation.
The Department of Health is now under pressure to issue more guidance to these mothers, who are acting outside of NHS supervision.
Some experts fear the unregulated practice could spread infection and viruses such as HIV and hepatitis. However, supporters argue mothers are making an informed choice.
Bex Poole, from Wolverhampton, appealed for help on the Facebook site ‘Human Milk 4 Human Babies’. She was having difficulty breastfeeding her baby son Theo, who was not gaining weight as he should. The Facebook site has nearly 18,000 followers.
Sarah McHugh, from Kidderminster, has since donated Ms Poole a freezer full of her breast milk after over expressing for her daughter Harriet.
Ms McHugh said she felt happy something positive had come out of the difficulties she had experienced feeding Harriet.
Now the pair feel they have struck up a bond because of the exchange. Ms Poole’s freezer is full of Ms McHugh’s breast milk.
Honesty and transparency is key
Informal schemes such as this have, however, attracted some criticism from experts.
Ms Poole and Ms McHugh said the key to success was making sure you asked the right questions prior to exchange.
“I volunteered quite a lot of personal information,” said Ms McHugh. “I said I was fit and well and that I wasn’t a smoker and I also donate to the hospitals’ milk bank, which I think reassured them.”
“There’s an unwritten trust among breastfeeding mums,” Ms Poole said. “I don’t believe a mum would share any milk if they’ve got problems.”
The Facebook site offers guidance for anyone considering using it and urges people to discuss medications, alcohol or drug use. It suggests using a health care provider for further testing if worried and asking for copies of results.
However, Dr Gemma Holder, a consultant neonatologist at Birmingham Women’s Hospital, is concerned mums who exchange milk without medical supervision might risk their babies’ health.
Meanwhile, Dr Sally Dowling, from University of the West of England, in Bristol, points out women have always shared milk with each other.
She said the World Health Organisation (WHO) supports feeding babies milk from another woman as an alternative to breastfeeding by the mother.