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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Milk Bank...

This is a wonderful article, written by an amazing woman whom I'm lucky to call "friend".


A funny thing happened on the way to the milk bank...

By Jodine Chase
Six months ago today on October 27, 2010, a Facebook status update flashed across my computer screen, burning just a little brighter than most. I must see hundreds of Facebook status updates and Twitter messages and email subject lines over the course of a day.

This one, I remembered.

"Human milk sharing, woman-to-woman, goes global" was the title, from Emma Kwasnica's Informed Choice: Birth and Beyond Facebook group. I remember a mental "hmmm" as it slipped on past.

I remember thinking, "it's about time somebody took charge of this and put access to mother's milk in the hands of  the mothers!"

The notion of re-establishing the mother's milk bank in my city was starting to feel very remote after years of effort with little result. It's been 25 years since we had a milk bank here in Edmonton. This Facebook milk sharing page idea seemed so simple, so easy. Just let mothers connect with each other. Let them decide how to screen and whether or not to pasteurize. To heck with jumping through hoops and getting the doctors and the medical professionals on side - just let the moms do it.

Within hours I noticed it had increased from one message to a buzz on my Facebook - people were talking about this, sharing news of the birth of this global milk-sharing network.  Every few hours I'd see another message, status update, post talking about Emma's global milk sharing network idea. It was starting to have a "tipping point" feel about it.

A few days later I met a longtime breastfeeding advocate at a coffee shop - and there she was, talking about this milk sharing idea on Facebook. It had moved from Facebook to face-to-face. Within a few days a local community page was set up, the sure enough, there they were, all the usual suspects, people who have been passionate about the need for a milk bank here, active on the page, offering their time as admins. 

It's six months later. I've seen many matches happen. We've had people post about life and death, "I-have-no-milk-and-this-baby-won't-tolerate-anything-else" needs, and ordinary, "I-just-need-milk-for-a-few-days-until-I-get-over-the-flu-and-rebuild-my-supply" needs. Mothers of preemies with overflowing freezers have donated. Matches have been made where women ship milk via Greyhound and Purolator. We've also had women who have received milk from their next-door-neighbours. Literally, their next-door neighbours.

There's been local news coverage and global media attention. Our federal health department issued a precautionary statement. A paediatrician working to establish a milk bank in Toronto was called upon to explain this upstart global Facebook milk sharing phenomena at the US FDA's day-long milk bank meeting in Washington, D.C. 

Hollywood movie stars talked about donating extra milk stored in their freezers for babies in need, and stars with adopted babies like Neil Patrick Harris and Elton John talked about sourcing human milk on talk shows and in magazine interviews.

I'm not going to pretend it's mainstream. But in the last few months friends and acquaintances and relatives have come up to me in person, or engaged me in chat on FB and shared with me their own stories of wet-nursing, milk sharing, tribe nursing. Stories I'd never heard before. About the time they were sick and a neighbour brought over breastmilk. About the day they had to go to the hospital and a friend wet-nursed their baby. About their own freezer stashes and how they came forward to help women and babies in need. Women younger than me have spoken about doctors asking them to bring milk into hospitals for babies who aren't thriving. Women have said, matter-of-fact, "oh, my sister and I nursed each other's babies all the time.

These women are talking about it now because it feels safe  to talk about it. It doesn't feel icky or taboo anymore. It doesn't feel as if no-one else will understand - now when there's people talking about this global milk sharing network right on your Facebook. Your sister is doing it, your daughter is doing it, and you find out about it because she talks about it on Facebook. It MUST be "normal." That's the real power, I think, of this global milk sharing network on Facebook - the power to bring all these stories out of the closet.

Emma Kwasnica, six months ago today you put out your call. You asked mothers to organize themselves on Facebook to create a women-to-women milk sharing network. And they have. Today Human Milk 4 Human Babies is a global milk sharing network with almost 300 administrators, 125 community pages in almost 50 countries around the world.

There has been a seismic shift in attitudes about human milk and there is no going back from that. Authorities are concerned about safety and are scrambling for alternatives including improving access to human milk through "official channels."

Will there be more milk banks because of this global milk sharing movement?

I hope so.

But with mothers sharing milk openly and freely, connecting via Facebook and using other social media tools, will milk banks even be needed? I almost hope...not.

Front page of the Toronto Star this morning, "Donor Breast Milk is Greatest Gift for Sick Babies"