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Emma Kwasnica: "the biggest difference between milk banks and milksharing is the bond that is forged between mothers, between whole families!"

As many of you may already know, breastfeeding and formula-feeding are not the only choices at hand  when deciding how to feed an infant. Milksharing is as ancient as humanity itself and is currently being rediscovered by modern moms as yet another option. Most women are capable of producing milk for their children, but some may not produce enough at a certain time or might be unable to produce any milk at all. Others, simply cannot or haven't been able to breastfeed their children, yet wish to feed them human milk. 

On the other hand, many breastfeeding moms produce more than enough milk for their kids and end up pumping and freezing. More often than not, the milk ends up taking a lot of freezer space, when they find out their baby prefers to breastfeed directly, or for some reason may not accept the expressed breastmilk. All this liquid gold, stashed away in some mamas' freezers, while other mamas struggle to find human milk for their babies and are often turned down by milk banks unless their babies are extremely premature or very ill.

As Annie from PhD in Parenting put it: Breast milk is not a scarce commodity, the only piece missing was a way to connect moms with extra milk and moms in need of breastmilk. Emma Kwasnica came up with such a way, thus Human Milk For Human Babies was founded. I had the opportunity to interview Emma and learned some wonderful things about this worldwide milksharing network.

World Milksharing Week is held annually during the last week of September to celebrate milksharing and to promote human milk as the biologically normal nourishment for babies and children.

How did you come up with the idea of setting up a milk sharing network?

It all started back in the winter of 2010, when friends began posting on my personal page looking for breastmilk; I would simply re-post out the need as a status update for my page, and thanks to my vast network of breastfeeding mom/advocate contacts, someone would always reply. We were very successful at finding milk locally for all the mums in need --even as far away as Indonesia! I realised after a few months of this and more than a dozen "milky matches" made in this way, that I am just one woman in Montreal, and the vision came to me for a global milksharing network --a network with hyper-localized community pages, run by the mothers, themselves, at a local level. When I put out the call to action, the women of my network responded in droves to run their own, local community milksharing pages, and the global network was born in October of 2010. Here we are nearly one full year later, and there are 130 community pages up and running now in over 50 countries, with over 300 volunteer administrators! 

How can mothers volunteer to help set up a local page if there isn't one already for their area?

There are 130 community pages up and running, covering 54 countries. Mums can check the community page list, and if there isn't an HM4HB page in their area, they can contact me to set one up! 

What about all the people and health organizations warning mothers of the "risks" of milk-sharing? Why don't they warn them of the risks of formula-feeding?

Because formula-feeding has unfortunately become the norm in the western world and it is simply culturally accepted now as "just as good as breastmilk". We know this is not true, but culture is very, very hard to change. While no one is denying that there are risks to sharing milk, what even health professionals don't realise is that there are also risks to feeding anything other than human milk, and this includes feeding powdered infant formula. It is a question of relative risk, and the health bodies are not approaching risk in an accurate or helpful way when they suggest that formula-feeding is safe and any kind of milk sharing between mothers is not. Mothers can and do mitigate the risks of sharing milk. They are weighing the risks between feeding formula and feeding another woman's milk every single day via our network. So far, it appears to be working out beautifully and this has everything to do with the fact that no mother would ever do anything to harm her baby; the mothers who are sharing milk are doing so because they *know* it is the best thing for their child. Society needs to give mothers more credit; this disdain for mothers and their apparent inability to make the "best" choices for their babies is rooted in the much larger issues of patriarchy and feminism that we probably don't have time to get into here. These issues are never the less very important and are truly at the crux of the matter. 

There's a great shortage of milk banks all over the world, except in Brazil, do you think mother to mother milk sharing would be unnecessary if there were enough milk banks?

No. Milk banks, even if ubiquitous, will never cover the needs that mom-to-mom milksharing covers. Older babies deserve breastmilk, too! Also, milk banks serve only the sickest, most compromised babies. What about newborn HEALTHY babies whose mothers, for whatever reason, cannot provide (enough) breastmilk? Do they not deserve access to human milk, too? Of course they do! ALL babies deserve breastmilk, and this is why informal milksharing will always be needed. Quite possibly the biggest difference between milk banks and milksharing is the bond that is forged between mothers, between whole families! When you donate to a milk bank, you will not know or get to meet the baby to whom your milk goes, you will not get to see one particular baby who is now thriving because of your gift of milk. Donating to a milk bank, while life-saving, is an impersonal experience. That is the bottom line. Human beings crave this kind of connection with one another and forging bonds in this manner is a wonderful experience that cannot be replicated when you donate to a milk bank.

Does donated breastmilk always imply the baby receiving the milk will be bottle fed?

Not at all! There is something called an at-breast supplementer that enables mothers with low supply (or even no supply!) to nourish their baby at their own breast. There are important reasons for a baby to be fed a woman's breast, wherever possible. This is done by latching the baby on to the mother's breast and slipping a very small feeding tube into the baby's mouth via the corner of the mouth. The milk flows through the tube from a container of donor milk as the baby suckles at mother's breast. In other words, (s)he is supplemented with milk *while nursing* via the tube. Because there is so much more to breastfeeding than just the milk!

That's wonderful! That would also be a way for moms struggling with supply issues to increase their breastmilk production, just by having their babies at their breast. 

So this week is World Milksharing Week, right? What events are you planning to celebrate and how can we join in?

The first ever WMW is already well underway! In fact, there is only today and tomorrow left to celebrate. Many families have gotten together to picnic in the park with one another, and there have been dozens and dozens of blog posts going up all week with truly heartwarming stories of milksharing. Those are the two most popular "events" that seem to be happening this week. All of it raises awareness about milksharing and we are just thrilled with the level of participation for our inaugural World Milksharing Week 2011 event!

Thank you Emma, for being such an inspiration, for bringing families together, for helping mothers feed their babies with human milk and freeing up other mamas' freezers in such a wonderful, helpful way. I've heard heart-breaking stories of liquid gold being poured down the drain because human milk banks turned it down and the kids in the house just wouldn't drink it. It's been a pleasure talking to you :-)

Have a milksharing story? Tell us all about it in the comments below. Happy milksharing week!
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