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sharing breast milk

What’s in that bottle? For some infants, it’s breastmilk—from another baby’s mother.

When Erika Mehta had to have an emergency c-section just 27 weeks into her pregnancy, she had no idea her son’s premature arrival would end up being a miracle-maker for another family.

At just 2 lbs. 2 oz., baby Ben was in for a long haul in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at the Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, and Mehta began pumping right away. Ben started taking an ounce or two of breast milk after a few days, but Mehta’s body was producing enough sustenance for a full-term baby. Her freezer filled—and then so did a separate one she and her husband bought just for the milk.

Mehta donated some of her surplus to a milk bank, after clearing all the blood tests and stringent lifestyle qualifications milk banks require. But then she asked her lactation consultant if she knew anyone who needed extra milk. She did.

Tiffany Carman’s adopted son, Eli, was born addicted to meth and had a severe milk intolerance. “We tried every formula under the sun, from the regular to the ultra-expensive milk-allergy ones,” Carman says. “I even tried making my own formula from a recipe our doctor gave us, but Eli was still hurting.”

Mehta gave Carman about 10 days’ worth of milk and asked Carman to give her a call in a few days to let her know how it was going. But it didn’t take a few days for Carman to know. “I called her the next morning—I couldn’t contain myself,” she says. “From the minute I gave him Erika’s milk, Eli was a different baby. He went from this screaming, crying mess to cooing and smiling. I had never seen him smile before.” Carman says she really met Eli for the first time after that, since his personality finally shined through. He exclusively fed on donated milk for six months, and thrived.

Mehta says sometimes it was tough, wondering if she was handing over milk she should have been stockpiling for her baby. “There were times I wondered, ‘Should I be saving this for Benny? Am I handing over too much of Benny’s milk?’ ”

But the Mehtas soon discovered that Ben—who turned out to be a prodigious nurser and showed no ill effects from his super-early arrival—refused bottles.

“That made me think, ‘Wow, maybe this was never Benny’s milk after all,’ ” she says. “Tiffany was meant to be Eli’s mom, and maybe I was the one who was meant to provide milk for him.”

Milk Sharing: Is it Right For You?

The official stance of La Leche League International, the breastfeeding support organization, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is that they don’t support peer-to-peer milk donation and recommend that mothers who want breast milk but can’t produce any buy it from milk banks instead.

In a perfect world, that would be the best option, says Rosemary Shy, M.D., a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan as well as the breastfeeding coordinator for the Michigan chapter of the AAP.

“Unfortunately, milk banks can be cost-prohibitive, since insurance rarely covers it outside the NICU,” she says. “I wish social systems would catch up and human milk would not be such an extraordinary expense, but we’re just not there yet.” There are nine milk banks in the U.S. that are members of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. They follow strict guidelines, screen donors, and pasteurize the milk. Many ship milk to hospitals and individuals, and fees are around $4.50 an ounce.

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