Breastmilk is the optimal source of nutrition for babies although there are a range of situations in which breastfeeding is difficult, including prematurity. Human milk is donated in the UK in both regulated and unregulated ways. A network of human milk banks receive and distribute donor milk, primarily to premature and sick infants, supported by NICE guidance (NICE, 2010) and the UK Association for Milk Banking (UKAMB). Variations in the geographical spread and funding of the banks mean that women who want to donate or receive breastmilk are not always able to do so. Discourse around the provision and use of human milk in this way often emphasises issues of risk and safety.
There are also ways in which breastmilk is donated informally, often using the terminology of ‘sharing’, usually to full-term infants. Some women feed each other’s babies via friendship groups whilst others contact each other using online (often international) networks specifically set up for the purpose of peer-to-peer human milk sharing. Health bodies in a number of countries have issued warnings against obtaining breastmilk in this way, focussing again on ‘danger’ and ‘risk’. These topics have been the subject of a range of academic papers as well as online discussions.
This presentation aims to review the issues involved in both regulated and unregulated practices of milk donation. It asks questions about the nature of donation and whether donors and recipients are viewed differently according to the mode of donation and the situation of the recipient. The main focus will be on informal milk sharing – why and how it happens and how both donation and risk are framed and accounted for. Finally, issues relating to the perception of human milk will be briefly raised – as both ‘white gold’ and ‘matter out of place’ – drawing on ideas of cultural unease about women’s bodily fluids.