Is breast milk sharing safe?

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Denise Miller can't help but grin when she talks about her son Mason.

"He looks like my husband," Miller said as she held Mason in the Neonatal ICU at Kentucky Children's Hospital.

Mason was born at 29 weeks. Machines are helping him breathe.

This is not how she pictured Mason's start in the world, and she did not see herself breastfeeding. That was not part of her plan. But, since he was premature, she was told she should.

"My milk, they say it helps him get better in general. It forms antibodies to help him fight infections. So whenever they are little they really need it," she said.

Miller is able to give her son her own breast milk. If she couldn't, the NICU would offer to give her donor milk from a milk bank in Indiana.

"It's cultured. It's frozen and then it comes to us," explained Lactation Nurse Sharon Wilham.

Wilham said she orders from the milk bank weekly. The donor milk is pasteurized and frozen. The hospital pays $4.50 an ounce for breast milk ordered from the milk bank. Wilham said that's the same a mother would pay if she were purchasing the milk herself.

"They are very expensive and they are limited," said Victoria Gensheimer on donor milk banks. She is part of a growing trend of online milk-sharing.

Gensheimer is the administrator of the Facebook page, Human Milk 4 Human Babies Kentucky. The community has social media pages in all 50 states and beyond. Moms can donate and receive milk from other moms, for free.

"We don't sell. It's by donation only," Gensheimer strongly stated. In fact, she said the only issue they've had in the Kentucky milk-sharing community was when a woman tried to sell milk. But she said other mothers quickly shut her out of the group.

"In a way, they have each others back," she said. "If you are going to donate your milk, it's a gift. And you are more than likely going to be doing the best for your body you can."

But Wilham said to beware.

"You would not walk up to an absolute stranger on the street and say, 'Give me a unit of blood.' Breast milk is basically a live culture."

"It's unethical to even mention that it could be compared to, like a vial of blood or anything," Gensheimer said in response. She said there are no studies showing that milk-sharing is dangerous.

Wilham said milk-sharing isn't just dangerous, it's exclusive.

"Your breast milk is so specific to you and your baby, and your baby's needs, that if your body encounters bacteria in the morning that your body doesn't recognize, by that afternoon you have properties in your milk to protect your baby. That's how specific it is."

Wilham said many diseases stay in breast milk, even if it is frozen. "When we think of it that way, why would I walk up to a total stranger and say, 'I'll take your breast milk.'"

"Mothers are instinctual. I think we are capable of making these decisions with the right information," Gensheimer said.

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