In the days after last month's devastating earthquake in Haiti, I saw a news spot showing babies separated from their parents, being fed cow's milk because there was no formula available for them. I glanced at my 6-month-old on the floor, and then my breasts and eyes began leaking profusely.
I had already donated money to the Red Cross, but seeing these babies appealed to me on a biological level, as they would to any breastfeeding mother. I wanted to hop on a plane right then and feed those babies! Of course there was no plane to hop, and rationally I understood that the last thing Haiti needed was another woman needing to consume precious food and water just to feed a baby or two with her breasts.
But then I heard that breastmilk banking organizations were collecting milk to send to premature and intensive-care Haitian babies on the USNS Comfort. Suddenly, I needed to decide if I was ready to put my milk where my mouth was and start pumping.
Turns out, the answer was no. I shouldn't and in fact can't send my breastmilk to Haiti.
In my research, the first thing I found out is that, although the International Breast Milk Project really did send about 500 ounces of breast milk to the Comfort, they're not planning to send any more at this point.
Further, the Red Cross asked the Human Milk Banking Association of North America and La Leche to stop urging American mothers to donate milk. In fact, the article I just linked to says that the breastmilk sent by the IBMP has not even been used because of concerns raised by the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.
Well, it's irritating to hear that organizations with a track record of successfully screening breastmilk for impurities and transporting it to foreign countries was overruled by a government organization. But the same article explains that the storage and transportation of a substance as perishable as breastmilk poses a burden that rescue workers and the infrastructure in Haiti just can't handle right now.
"Donor milk...is not a solution for the large number of infants and young children affected by the earthquake in Haiti," the Human Milk Banking Association of North America now acknowledges on its website.
Yes, there are concerns about sending formula into a disaster zone, like the worry that powdered formula might be mixed with unsafe water or that breastfeeding mothers might stop if offered the alternative of formula. In fact, UNICEF and WHO say formula should not be sent to the disaster zone either, because that, too, poses a burden on the rescue effort, according to HMBANA's statement.
But whatever the risks of formula donation, sending breastmilk to Haiti is a no go at this point. A Red Cross spokesperson quoted in the article stated that Americans should stop trying to send breastmilk to Haiti. So there's no sense pumping it for those hungry babies I saw in the video, if they are even still alive and in need of food.
The question for me -- and I suspect a lot of breastfeeding women who were thinking about pumping for Haiti -- is whether we should hold onto that generous impulse and donate our milk to some other babies. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America is, as always, encouraging donations for sick and premature babies here in the United States, and the International Breast Milk Project sends mother's milk to Africa.
Before I became a lactating mother, it seemed like a no-brainer that I would share some of this "liquid gold" with families in need. There are lots of reasons why breastmilk is considered the ideal food for babies, especially sick and premature ones, and not all those babies have mothers who are present and able to make milk. Despite that I'm not so sure if I will take the plunge or not.
Here are some of my reasons for hesitating:
1. Collecting breastmilk is time intensive. You need to make sure your pump and bottles are clean and take the time to sit and pump. No easy order when you have three little ones like I do, as well as a small work-from-home business. I don't tend to have a large milk supply so a half-hour pumping session after feeding my own baby might not fill two four-ounce bottles. To be honest, I have only had time to pump for my own baby once or twice in his seven-month life so far. Heck, there are days I don't find the time to get a drink of water and find myself getting dehydrated! I'm worried that I might go through the time to donate only to find out that I was not successful in keeping the equipment clean enough to provide milk that is free of impurities.
2. Making breast milk puts some strain on my body. This may sound selfish, but I'd only be interested in commentary from other breastfeeding moms on this one. I'm not good about remembering to take those vitamins or drink milk, and I've already provided years worth of nutrition for three babies here at home. Moms I know who pump a lot have usually ended up with mastitis or thrush at some point. Do I really want to force this tired body to produce more milk? (Yes, I'm aware that breast feeding is in general good for a woman's body, prevents cancer, cardiovascular ailments, etc.)
3. Donating breast milk might require more "clean living" than I might go through for my own child's benefit. Actually, I eliminated this concern after a little reading. At first I thought that donating milk would mean giving up my evening glass of wine. I was reassured on this one by the Human Milk Banking Association, which said suitable donors must not have more than two ounces of alcohol per day. Cheers! That's more than I even allow myself! However, smokers are out, as are people who have spent time in England or Europe, or Africa. I'm not sure of the reason behind the geographical prohibitions, I'm guessing something to do with diseases people might be exposed to.
I would be willing to put aside my selfish concerns if I was sure that the milk I was donating was truly serving as great benefit to needy babies. There are some things that make me wonder about that, though:
1. Donated breastmilk could end up being sold by a for-profit company. The International Breast Milk Project describes its relationship with the company Prolacta as beneficial to babies all around, but not all potential donors may see it that way.
2. I'm not 100% convinced that my banked milk would be better for babies than formula. I'm pro-breastfeeding in a big way, don't get me wrong. But human milk gets pasteurized before being distributed to babies, and that process may cause it to lose some of the nutrition that makes breastmilk special to begin with.
Then there was this article questioning how big a difference breastmilk really makes. After reading it, I concluded that breastfeeding was certainly worth it for my own kids; after all the process of breastfeeding is beneficial and comforting to both mother and child, and the breastmilk changes as the child grows to perfectly fit her nutritional needs. But if my breastmilk was going to someone else's child, the process benefits would be lost, and the breastmilk would not be uniquely suited to that infant. In fact, a premature infant could be getting milk meant for a much older infant, mixed up with milk meant for other-aged babies.
So the Haiti question is an easy one to answer, but whether I should donate breastmilk is still hanging there in my mind. Sure, it couldn't hurt -- I have enough faith in the organizations that collect the milk to believe that the milk they collect from me won't harm its recipients -- but will it help enough to make the significant commitment of time and work worth it?