Health & Medicine

JULIE DEARDORFF: Breast-feeding by another woman

When my older son was 5 days old, a friend took him for a walk so I could take a much-needed nap. My baby grew hungry during their outing, but rather than returning and waking me up, my friend went ahead and breast-fed him herself.

I thought it was a little strange, but I didn't worry about it until I mentioned it to my husband, who told our friend, an emergency room doctor. The doctor told us that HIV, hepatitis, tuberculosis, syphilis and other viruses can be transmitted through human milk. Even La Leche League International advises its breast-feeding coaches about the potential problems with wet or cross-nursing. In addition to potential infection, regular cross-nursing can totally confuse and frustrate the baby, to the point that it might refuse to nurse at all. And milk from the baby's mother is exactly formulated for what her own baby needs. Another woman's milk probably won't meet the needs of the nursing child, especially if there is a big difference in age.

Still, I was OK with the one-time feeding by someone I knew and trusted. This friend is a health-conscious woman who has nursed both her children for at least the first three years of their lives. To her, breast-feeding my son made perfect sense: She had the goods, and a hungry child needed a snack.

When I mentioned it to others, however, reactions ranged from disgust to outrage. While we think nothing of giving infants milk from a different species -- a cow -- the prospect of sharing human milk gives many people the willies, and I've heard the age-old practice, still common in many cultures, described as "gross, sick, twisted and overboard."

Most surprising, though, was how the topic triggered inaccurate stereotypes about breast-feeding in general after I asked on my blog, Julie's Health Club, www.chicagotribune/Julie, whether human milk should be shared.

Among the perpetuated breast-feeding myths:

If the child can babble and walk, he doesn't need a breast.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk at least through baby's first year, and the World Health Organization recommends nursing at least two years. WHO also considers a mother's breast milk to her own child as the healthiest feeding choice. Second is a mother's expressed milk. Third is the breast milk of another mother. Fourth is formula.

A breast-feeding mother is "getting off."

Breast-feeding is not sexual. And it can be extremely painful in the beginning.

Mastitis, or a breast infection, leaves part or all of the breast intensely painful, hot, tender, red and swollen. The mother also may get flulike symptoms. Other common and unpleasant problems: engorged breasts and cracked or bleeding nipples. Meanwhile, getting an infant to latch correctly can be one of life's most frustrating, stressful experiences.

La Leche League is a militant group of "breast-feeding Nazis."

It's time to drop the inappropriate comparison. Back when LLL began in 1956, the first breast-feeding of a baby was 24 hours after delivery instead of the moment after birth, as it is today. During those long 24 hours, the baby had been given bottles of water or formula by nursing staff. Today, LLL's "radical" ideas have been accepted as the standard pediatric practice for breast-feeding. Also, LLL teaches that babies can thrive on human milk alone for the first six months but that a mother needs to be attuned to her own baby's needs and respond accordingly.

Breast-feeding should be about the baby's needs, not the mother's.

Breast-feeding is good for society in general. Women who spend at least two years of their lives breast-feeding are less likely to suffer a heart attack than those who don't breast-feed at all, according to a new Harvard Medical School study. And, men, take note: University of Chicago researcher Martha McClintock has shown breast-feeding women and their infants produce a substance that increases sexual desire among other women.

Human breast milk should not be shared.

While the personal nature of wet or cross-nursing can make people uncomfortable, it's a decision as personal as breast-feeding itself. Meanwhile, human milk is critically important for premature infants.

Milk banks, which screen donors, are a possible solution. There the milk is pooled, pasteurized and checked for contamination. In a program that should be replicated, mothers with premature infants at Rush University Medical Center provide milk for their babies. Then they donate the overflow to milk banks.