Social media is helping a community of mothers receive breast milk for their babies from other mothers who donate their own expressed milk.

Horticulture tutor Robin Atherton created a Facebook group called Bay of Plenty BreastMilk Sharing for mothers in the area to provide, or have their children provided, with breast milk.

"When my son was born, I had never heard of milk sharing," Dr Atherton said.

Her son was born five years ago with a posterior tongue tie which restricted the movement of his tongue, making it difficult for him to feed effectively. However this was not discovered until 18 months later.


"I just thought I wasn't doing it properly," she said. "I felt very alone."

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She started asking around and her son received donor milk from eight different women, and when Dr Atherton was later able to express milk she decided to pay it forward.

"When my friend had her daughter, and put a desperate plea out on Facebook for donor milk, I turned up at her house with a litre of frozen breastmilk a couple hours later."

Her friend began the Manawatu Milk Sharing Facebook page, and when Dr Atherton moved to Tauranga she created the Bay of Plenty group. "The group started a few years ago, it slowly built up to about 120 members," she said.

There is never enough milk, even though there may be an equal amount of people donated to needing, it's the quantity of milk.


Dr Atherton said the use of social media as a way to connect mothers was "invaluable" to milk sharing. "It's fantastic, I can't believe how much it's grown.

"Each week people join, usually it's about half and half, people who need milk and people who want milk donated.

"The more widespread the practice becomes, the more people will put their hand up and say I'd love to donate to a needy baby."

She said donating milk took a lot of time and effort. "There is never enough milk, even though there may be an equal amount of people donated to needing, it's the quantity of milk," she said.

Dr Atherton said donating milk gave mothers an option of how they could feed their child. "You make a decision based on your own informed choice of what is right for your family.

"I think those people who choose to use donated milk are not making a political statement, they are following what they have decided to do."

Bethlehem woman Sophie Blair said she was donating her milk as she was aware of other mothers who wanted to use breastmilk but struggled with supply, or had sick or premature babies. "I also would hope if I was in the same position someone would help me out," she said.

Bay of Plenty District Health Board midwife and senior lactation consultant Karen Palmer said milk banks and sharing breastmilk was a common practice until about 30 years ago, with the rise of HIV and the availability of infant formula. "Milk sharing is once again becoming popular as the benefits of breastfeeding and breastmilk are more widely known. Plus the internet has given mothers the opportunity to network and drive this practice."

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She said the guidelines around the use of donor breastmilk were similar to those around blood donation, such as screening for viruses such as hepatitis B and C, HIV, syphilis and lifestyle questions of medications, drug or alcohol use, wellness and diet.

"These tests and questions are relevant for pregnancy care, so most donors will have answers and results ... that a recipient requires for milk sharing to be safe," she said.

Robin Atherson created a Facebook page for breast milk sharing. Photo/Andrew Warner
Robin Atherson created a Facebook page for breast milk sharing. Photo/Andrew Warner

The Bay of Plenty Facebook page states in the description: "Don't be nervous about asking potential donors for blood tests and you are entitled to ask about lifestyle (smoking/alcohol/caffeine etc; gluten/dairy etc) that you may need to eliminate for your baby."

Ms Palmer said despite there being risks and benefits to both breastmilk and instant formula, "safe use of donor breastmilk (in the absence of mother's own milk) is preferred over infant formula".

"Breastmilk is a live substance, easily digested and excreted, with immune properties, all of which cannot be found in infant formula.

"Infant formula may run risks of setting up allergies, contamination in preparation, plus the minor risk of contamination of the formula powder itself."

She said there were plenty of mothers who had an abundant supply of milk, who were willing to donate.

"To others, they may feel more comfortable to use infant formula and that is okay. Informed choice and consent is the key, plus a drive to have more pasteurisation of human milk available," she said.

Bethlehem Birthing Centre facility co-ordinator and lactation consultant Shauna Walters said there was only one official milk bank in New Zealand.

"It's in Christchurch. I think it would be great if there was one in our area or even close by so women could access it."

She said there were a number of reasons why a mother might have accessed donor milk.

"If you look at the baby side of picture, which could be medical reasons, it could be that it is a twin, an adopted baby, a whanau adopted baby, and then the mum side of things, maybe she has had a breast reduction in the past and is not able to make breast milk, maybe she's had a mastectomy, maybe she's on medication that isn't suitable for a baby.

"Sometimes the doctor will make the call that that's not best for that baby to have that," she said.

"A mum who has had a traumatic labour and birth can have a delayed onset, mums that become very unwell and get admitted to hospital, or have a large blood loss."

Ms Palmer said it was important for premature babies to have their own mother's milk but in cases where that was not a possibility, screened donor milk from a person known to the family was used or infant formula was required.

"The Bay of Plenty DHB, along with the other Midland DHBs, have a draft donor milk protocol under review to help meet the growing need of families wishing to use donor breast milk for their hospitalised infant."