Why I choose to cross-nurse babies — both my biological child and children I’ve never met

Guest post by Ryan Stanley

By: Orin ZebestCC BY 2.0

I’ve nursed two babies but have only birthed one. I’ve pumped milk for my own daughter and for a handful of babies who I have never snuggled. Call me a modern day wet-nurse if you wish but personally I think the term is a bit outdated. I prefer “co-” or “cross-nurser.”

Historically, a wet-nurse was a lactating woman employed by an aristocratic family to nurse a baby whose mother was unable to breastfeed for reasons of physical inability, the need for immediate fertility after childbirth, or sheer prudishness. Today, wet-nurses are employed (some literally paid, others volunteers) in developing countries where infant mortality rates are high and artificial milk (aka formula) is prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable.

Co-nursing (also termed cross-nursing by the La Leche League) is a collaborative relationship in which a mother who cannot nurse her baby fully due to low milk supply, a medication or medical condition that is incompatible with breastfeeding, a surgery or hospital stay, etc., utilizes the help of fellow lactating mothers to meet her own baby’s needs. Co-nursers physically feed a baby whose mother is unable. Though long-term co-nursing relationships are not unheard of, these relationships are typically short-term. Most mothers who require co-nursers have a deep desire to nurse their babies as often as possible and/or when able.

Milk-sharing happens when expressed breast milk from a donor mom is donated directly to a mother-baby pair and fed to the baby via finger or spoon feeding, a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS) or bottle. Human Milk for Human Babies is a free, online, global milk-sharing network that facilitates safe, community-based milk-sharing, mother to mother. In addition, there are about a dozen Human Milk Banking Association Milk Banks across the US and Canada. These milk banks accept milk directly from donors and charge recipient families by the ounce to cover the cost of storage, transport and distribution. They mainly distribute to hospital NICUs.

I became a proud co-nurser and milk sharer through my amazing birthing community in Sarasota, Florida. With two free-standing birth centers (Rosemary Birthing Home and Birthways Family Birth Center) and a number of independently practicing licensed midwives, there is a unique and ever growing group of breastfeeding friendly families settled among the wealthy retirees here on the Gulf Coast of Florida. As far as I can tell, co-nursing and milk sharing have gone on in this community as long as the community has existed.

I dropped a few bags of frozen milk in the birthing home freezer and that was it.

I was first introduced to the idea of sharing my milk when my midwife put out a call for expressed breast milk via Facebook. I had been pumping milk somewhat regularly to build a personal freezer stash and thought, why not! And it was so easy. I dropped a few bags of frozen milk in the birthing home freezer and that was it. Since then, I’ve donated to several mamas in our community and recently co-nursed a baby whose mama was unable to nurse because of a medication she began taking immediately postpartum.

Some people get squiked out at the idea of sharing breastmilk — it is a bodily fluid after all — but my decision to donate my milk was an easy one. I firmly believe in the World Health Organization’s recommendations on newborn and infant feeding (see #18). Newborns and infants should be fed “expressed breast milk from an infant’s own mother” followed by “breast milk from a healthy wet-nurse or a human-milk bank” if the mother is unable to nurse. Formula should be used when those two options are not available.

I understand how difficult the seemingly easy act of nursing a baby can be for some mamas. I know many women struggling right now and formula feeding may be the best solution for them. Having said that, since having my daughter I have been amazed at my body’s ability to produce such an incredible, seemingly endless resource. I was lucky in those early months to be able to nurse around the clock and still pump 10 ounces a day without trying.

Wet-nursing may be an outdated term but mothers supporting mothers will never go out of style.

After donating to a few mamas in my community, I submitted my name and contact info to the local Human Milk for Human Babies Facebook page and started promoting their cause. I wanted mamas looking for the second best alternative to their own milk to be able to find it easily. Because I feel so strongly about breast milk being the best milk for babies, I now feel obligated to give what I can. If you had a virtually unlimited supply of water or cucumbers or Star Wars action figures, wouldn’t you give freely as well? Wet-nursing may be an outdated term but mothers supporting mothers will never go out of style.

If you are at all interested in giving OR receiving breast milk, I encourage you to check out Human Milk for Human Babies. They have Facebook pages for hundreds of cities and towns across the US and have a global network of milk sharing communities. Reach out to your local community of midwives, OBGyns, Doulas, Childbirth Educators, La Leche Legue Leaders and Lactation Counselors. Start talking about co-nursing and milk sharing in your playgroups and Mommy & Me classes. If you know a mama who is struggling with her nursing, encourage her to look into co-nursing or milk sharing before turning to formula. If you have a freezer you can start a community milk bank in your own home!

The benefits of co-nursing and milk-sharing are unending. What are the benefits of breastfeeding? Those are the benefits of co-nursing and milk-sharing. An added benefit is Community. Yes, I feel a great sense of pride in knowing I’m helping families who are dedicated to breastfeeding thrive. But, most importantly, I feel ever connected to my community knowing that if I were ever unable to nurse my baby there is a network of other mamas who would be there for me in my time of need. It’s an indescribable feeling but one that drives me to continue to co-nurse and milk-share as much as possible.

Comments on Why I choose to cross-nurse babies — both my biological child and children I’ve never met

  1. i always find it amazing to watch my baby grow when i nurse them… i always thing, wow, i did that! i made food that grew them. 12 years later and five kids later, i still see the benefits of nursing in each and every one in so many different ways. i think what you are doing is a blessing and truly amazing.

  2. I have always been interested in cosharing breast milk with other babies, and our local La Leche League is active in connecting supply with demand from mothers who need it. To me it is an amazing thing that many mothers can produce enough milk for others as well as their own babies. The best part about it is that nutrition wise most breast milk is equal, because it takes what it needs from the mother’s own body (sometimes to her detriment if she isn’t keeping up with her nutrition) so there isn’t anything to worry about with having to “supplement” breast milk! Life truly is full of amazing things.

  3. How I wish I know about this program while I was failing to nurse my daughter. I am glad to know there are ppl out there who still are willing to help others in such an intimate way. Failing (in my case miserably) breastfeeding is such a sensitive issue and to be able to give your child the healthy benefits is awesome! GO YOU!!

  4. Thank you for doing this. My little preemies survived on donated breast milk during their 77 day NICU stay. My low milk supply kept me from meeting their needs. Again, thank you.

  5. This is to great! I looked into milk donation a little before my son was born just out of curiosity. It seemed a lot more complicated than simply dropping off milk. You had to submit proof of blood tests that show you a clear of STD’s etc, then they test the milk to make sure it “matches” your profile. Also, they wanted milk from mothers who’s baby was less than one year old, and you had to use their packaging. I wonder if these were requirements for donating overseas?? I wish I could find the site! It’s interesting to know that there are lots of other programs available that are not as strict, but what precautions are taken to make sure the milk is safe?

    • if you were looking into submitting to a Milk Bank, then yes. Milk Banks do all kinds of preliminary screening of the mother and the milk. HM4MB is a little different in that they let the two parties work out those details. thanks for your comment!

  6. My 83 year old father would have died from starvation during the depression if not for a wonderful neighbor of my grandmothers who noticed my dad crying and told my grandmother that he was hungry and she would be happy to feed him. My grandmother accepted and she fed my dad 2 x a day for the next 3 or 4 months and well he is 83 so I guess it worked!

    • My grandmother’s sister died of starvation because their father couldn’t afford a wet-nurse after their mother passed. When my mum told me that, I knew there was NO WAY I could not share my milk

  7. this is also a great resource for adoptive mothers/adopted children. my wife was adopted as an infant and her mother participated in something like this. i think it is really cool that people do this; it’s something i had never heard of (in current society) before my wife told me that.

  8. When my youngest brother was born about 24 years ago, he was full-term but ended up in the NICU due to another complication. My mother’s milk came in immediately and she began pumping up a surplus and storing it in the NICU fridge. My aunt noticed one day that all the babies in the NICU were drinking milk with my brother’s name on it! Mom and aunt were quite shocked at first, but she warmed to the idea when she realized many of babies in NICU were premature and likely did not have access to breastmilk from their mothers. She even embraced the nickname of “milk cow” they had jokingly given her.

    • shouldn’t the staff have asked her first!? That makes me quite uncomfortable as they would have been technically stealing.

      On the other hand, go your Mum for embracing it! 🙂

      • Agree! They definitely should have asked her, but luckily there was plenty to go around! I would hope that something like this wouldn’t happen today (the incident was a quarter century ago). I often wonder as well, if the parents of the other babies knew they were getting something more than formula…

  9. My baby is not able to breastfeed due to a cleft lip and palate, so I exclusively pump and provide him with my milk that way. It is really hard!!! BUT, being able to feed my baby and have extra to share with other babies really does make it that much easier! I currently live in Brazil and donate to my local milk bank and when I am in the US visiting family I have connected with mommies through Human Milk for Human Babies. It is so rewarding! Thank you for the well written and thoughtful piece.

  10. Thanks for this well-timed article. I have a huge stash of frozen milk in my freezer that my 5.5 month old won’t eat, since he is steadfastly anti-bottle. (Which is fine, since I’m staying at home with him for now.) It inspired me to get online to Human Milk for Human Babies and email a few mamas who need milk for their wee ones. Breastfeeding was so so hard for me to figure out (it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies like I hoped it would be), but once my wee one and I sorted it out, I had a huge oversupply, a bottle-refusing baby, and no idea what to do with the pile of bagged milk in the freezer. I’m hopeful that my oversupply will help feed some other wee ones.

  11. Helping others is a wonderful thing to do, kudoes!

    STD’s are totally a valid concern though and at least around here (not US) milk banks have mostly stopped existing, because they’d be legally required to sterilize the milk they receive and at that point the milk is not really any better than formula.

    So, if somebody is interested in doing an exchange along these lines (in places where formula is a high quality, safe and not too expensive option) I’d make sure that there’s confidece that no diseases are being transmitted (I’m not saying that there are mothers out there trying to infect babies, but not everybody knows) and that the milk is still in a condition to actually include all the things that make it superior to fomula still.

    • Human Milk for Human Babies states the following in their FAQs:

      Q: What can I do to provide to my baby the safest possible breastmilk?

      A: Full disclosure reduces risk. Suggested points of discussion can include medications, alcohol and drug use. In many countries, testing for infectious diseases is done during routine prenatal/antenatal care. You may be able to consult a health care provider to obtain further testing if desired. Some diseases to consider are HIV, hepatitis B and C, syphilis, HTLV, as well as cytomegalovirus (CMV) and tuberculosis. You can ask for copies of those test results.
      If you cannot get a complete picture of the health of your donor, one option is to look into at-home pasteurization.

      They then go on to discuss how to do at-home pasteurization.

      Honestly, I think in most situations, women who are willing to donate breast milk (the process of pumping and storing is often not as easy as I make it out to be) are healthy moms with no risk factors who are nursing their own children. Just like the “razor blades in Halloween candy” scare, there will always be risks but these risks are certainly mitigated with careful screening of potential donors. In my case, my local birthing home knows me and the mama. If there was any reason for alarm, the third party (the birthing home) would intervene.

      I appreciate your comment and would love to hear from others who have donated to or received milk from Milk Banks in North America or internationally.

    • Pasteurized human milk is actually FAR superior to formula. It is still perfectly balanced human milk, just without the immune cells. Formula is the last choice for hospitalized babies (according to thw WHO), but since donor milk is difficult to find, often used first.

      I am a LC in a rural area (US) and am currently looking into ways to increase the use of donor milk. This sounds like a great lead! It can be heartbreaking to see parents who absolutely do not want formula weeping over the supplementation of their newborn.

  12. Gah, this is lovely. Hopefully I’ll be breast feeding without any problems (and if so, I hope to express and donate to our local Milk Bank too), but it makes me feel super awesome to know there are amazing ladies out there also willing to step up and help my kid get the nutrition she needs, whilst I get the support I need.

  13. I am Mother to Laszlo, 5 weeks. I was recently diagnosed with severe insufficient glandular tissue – I physically cannot produce enough milk to sustain my growing son. We’ve benefited tremendously from Human Milk for Human Babies and Eats on Feet – however, these networks always need donors! Thank you for bringing attention to milk sharing.

  14. One of my best friends has a “milk twin” (I just made that up, don’t know if it’s a term!). Her mum and her mum’s friends both had babies at the same time and swapped childcare so they could work and finish their studies. They both breastfed both girls. It would take a friendship of great trust to do this but I think it’s awesome.

    On the other hand, my mum once walked in on her former friend breastfeeding my brother and hit the roof! I think unless it’s an emergency it’s pretty unacceptable to do this without discussing it first!

  15. I have donated to several women over the past 2 1/2 years. I was part of a local breastfeeding support group based out of my birth center and they kind of have a milk bank going on as needed. I regularly gave milk to one or two women as I had extra, which wasn’t much when I was nursing my daughter and working full time as a teacher with limited pumping breaks. My son came along nearly 9 months ago and so did a very increased milk supply! I have had the opportunity to give away about 200oz this time, a little bit at a time, because my supply with my second child was so much greater! I am so happy that I could help the mommas that I was able to help and look forward to helping more. The mother to mother connection is vital! I have also had the opportunity to wet-nurse a good friend’s baby who refuses bottles when she had to go out of town for a few days. It was an awesome and unique experience. Yay for milk-sharing mommies!!

  16. I love this article. When I was born, my mother had some serious health concerns and we had to be separated for the first 6 weeks of my life. I stayed with my aunt who nursed me and took care of me until my mon got healthy. My aunt and I share a special bond which I attribute to the closeness we shared when I was so tiny. It’s awesome!

  17. I love this piece! I am currently nursing my 6-month old son and was recently talking to a reired nursing colleague about how much I love nursing. She agreed, and another colleague in the same room asked if we would ever nurse another person’s baby. We were both like, absolutely! I am going to check out HM4HB.

  18. I looked into donating my milk and was SO excited about it…until my vegan diet disqualified me. My own baby was fat and happy so their claim that the fat content was too low was confusing to me. I was disappointed.

      • I follow Eats on Feet, too! I live in a remote community in BC with no milk bank, but there are lots of nursing moms. I haven’t seen yet a call for milk that I can help with, though.

        Also, if it’s getting within of a month of having to discard milk you’ve frozen, you might want to ask around and see if you know (or know someone who knows) a chemo patient who’d like to use it. I’ve read that breastmilk is great for a chemo patient’s sensitive stomach.

  19. I have been an admin for an HM4HB page (Vancouver Island and BC) for quite a while and have also donated my milk to local babies. It is such an honour to help these babies and families out in such a way. Breastfeeding isn’t always possible, but breast milk should be.

  20. Just another “me too” anecdote. I was born in August, and One month later, my mum’s best friend adopted her son. This was in the early 80’s, back when the popular opinion held in favor of formula, but mom wasn’t having with it. She breastfed me and her friend’s son whenever she could, and never thought of it as anything other than totally sound, right and logical.

  21. I was breastfeeding my baby until about two months when we realized he had a severe dairy allergy, and began puking blood. We had to go on a super hypo-allergenic formula, and I had an entire freezer full of pumped milk. I was so happy to be able to donate it, it would have broken my heart to see all that work wasted.

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