Culture //

The breast milk black market

Maani Truu explores the online communities sharing breast milk.

Hi. I have approx. 900 ml of breast milk in freezer expressed in March. Pick up from Sydney. Non smoker, non drinker. Not on medication or drugs. Bub is currently 6 months.

For most of us, this isn’t a typical post we’d see scrolling through our Facebook feeds, but for users of the NSW page of Human Milk for Human Babies (HM4HB), it’s nothing out of the ordinary.

A global operation, HM4HB operates via localised Facebook pages which act as platforms for donors and recipients to be matched, based on location. A post will often include information such as location, amount of breast milk needed or to be donated, and the age of their child, along with more specialised provisos such as: “non smoker”, “non drinker”, “vegetarian” or even “gluten free”. The term “healthy lifestyle” is also thrown around a lot.

Under Australian law, it is illegal to sell human products. This makes a formal system of milk banks difficult to establish. Currently, Australia has only five banks and of these five, only one provides milk to the general population.

The “one” is a charity called Mother’s Milk Bank, which provides breast milk to any parent, but only after a compulsory “donation” of ten dollars per bottle.

HM4HB-user Terri* – who describes her family as “upper-middle class” – believes this cost to be “completely unsustainable” considering her daughter’s appetite of six bottles a day.

But why would someone want a stranger’s breast milk?

“I think people forget how hard breastfeeding is to establish,” says Daina, another user of HM4HB. “We think it is just going to be this natural phenomenon, that your baby is born, they crawl up, latch onto the breast and everything is fine. Very few women have that experience.”

There are countless reasons a parent may not be producing breast milk. Medical issues, surrogacy and adoption are the most common, but these by no means represent the entire spectrum of HM4HB users’ experiences.

Perhaps a more important question is: why we should care about breast milk, when formula is available, and in most cases, a fine source of nourishment? For many of the mothers on HM4HB it comes down to one belief: “breast is best” – regardless of whose breast the milk is coming from.

Parents are not always involved in milk-sharing out of necessity. As Daina puts it, “formula is a substitute that is always available and is fine

to use, but I think there are a lot of health benefits for a newborn baby to be breastfed, whenever possible.”

Despite the perpetuity of the “formula versus breast milk” debate, “breast is best” is endorsed by the World Health Organisation. Its guidelines state “breast milk from a healthy wet-nurse or human-milk bank” is the next-best option where traditional breast feeding is not possible. Of course, with an emphasis on “healthy”.

Which is one criticism made by opponents of milk sharing – that “healthy” isn’t guaranteed.

HM4HB users figure the risk is negligible when the milk has already been quality-tested by donors’ children.

“These are mothers who have recently given birth and are altruistic enough to find someone to donate their milk to. Those people by nature are responsible,” says Terri.

And, according to mums like Terri, the fact that donors aren’t financially renumerated speaks to their trustworthiness.

Viewed conversely, sceptics question the motives of donors. There’s no economic benefit to be gained from peer-to-peer milk sharing: is it really all altruism?

Others seem to be sceptical because of the attached social taboo.

“As women’s bodies are objectified for sexual

needs, the biological function of women’s bodies is viewed as repulsive,” says Terri, “so sharing breast milk is seen as degenerate.”

The stigma seems particularly misplaced when looking at the variety of uses for breast milk. For Amber, a donor on HM4HB, her milk donation journey begun when her sister-in-law was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma and her oncologist recommended drinking colostrum to boost her immune system. Colostrum is the first few mils of breast milk expressed , with higher levels of antibodies and protein.

“Everyday I would pump about 20 mils of colostrum,” Amber recalls, “and my sister-in-law would come over and have a cup of Rooibos tea with a splash of rice milk and colostrum.”

What is striking about the HM4HB community is how they have established their own small sisterhood, so firm in its communal goodwill, that it’s common for a mother to drive across Sydney to ensure another mother’s baby is fed. It is a sisterhood of women gifting milk.

Amber put it simply, “I’m a blood donor and I’m an egg donor, it just made sense to me. If you can give something without it having a detrimental effect on you – why not?”

*Some names have been changed.

Art by Amandine Le Bellec