GUILFORD COUNTY, N.C. -- The early months of an infant's life are essential to his or her development. Experts tend to agree that, when possible, a mother's breast milk is best for her baby.
Some women can not easily produce breast milk. A child may even have an allergy that does not allow them to drink their mother's milk. If a family adopts or uses a surrogate, they may assume they will not be able to feed the baby breast milk.
Nisha Coffey wants parents to know another option is breast milk sharing.
Coffey's three-month old daughter Natalie is healthy, happy and always hungry. Coffey loses count of how many bottles Natalie goes through every day.
"Breast milk is the best food for an infant," emphasized Kristen Kevorkian. Kevorkian is a married mother-of-two in Kernersville.
Kevorkian's breast milk has sustained Coffey's daughter Natalie for months. "We refer to it as liquid gold!" she joked.
Coffey admitted, "If you told me five months ago that I would feed my daughter from 20 different women? I would not have believed you!"
It's called informally sharing breast milk or milk swapping. One mom has an oversupply of milk; other moms, like Coffey in Summerfield, can't produce for a variety of reasons.
Coffey had a difficult first pregnancy with her son, so she and her husband decided to seek out other methods for their second child. They used a surrogate. Despite her best efforts, Coffey could not start re-lactating before Natalie was born. Her lactation consultant mentioned the idea of milk sharing.
"I'm a huge germaphobe," she laughed. "The idea of feeding my baby something that came out of someone's body was pretty disgusting."
But after taking her concerns to the internet, Coffey was intrigued. She and Kevorkian met on a Facebook group called "Human Milk for Human Babies - North Carolina."
Kevorkian hated to throw away any breast milk, especially after seeing how many Moms were desperate to find some on the website. "If I can do something with it, and help other babies, then why wouldn't I?" she pointed out.
At first Kevorkian was hesitant to meet a complete stranger face-to-face.
"Even though I was gonna give this mom my breast milk, it still seemed weird to give them my address," she admitted.
Meanwhile, Coffey and her husband quickly adapted to the world of milk sharing after deciding they did not want to feed Natalie formula. "We have traveled hours and hours across the state to pick up milk and small batches of milk just to get through another day."
When Coffey and Kevorkian finally met, they formed an instant bond. Kevorkian provides milk for Natalie exclusively now.
The Food and Drug Administration does not currently regulate breast milk. However, it advises against informally sharing milk.
"It's a very compassionate thing to want to give human milk to another human baby," explained Kim Updegrove, a nurse, and the President of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.
"But sharing a body fluid without screening and processing of that fluid is scary," she told FOX8 in an interview.
Sue Evans heads the Mother's Milk Bank at WakeMed hospital in Raleigh. It's one of only 12 non-profit milk banks in the United States.
"A woman may be on medications that are harmful to the baby or she may have a transmittable disease she's not aware of that can be transmitted through the breast milk," Evans explained.
She said diseases such as HIV, syphilis and Hepatitis can be carried in breast milk. That's why she encourages mothers with extra milk to donate to WakeMed.
"Once we get the milk, we pool the milk with other donors. We pasteurize that milk," she explained. That donor milk is tested and used for babies in the hospital or sold to moms who can afford it. It's not cheap, but Evans believes it's the safest way to acquire breast milk that isn't your own.
Updegrove, the Director of a milk bank in Austin Texas, agreed.
"Unprocessed and unscreened milk is dangerous for human babies," she insisted.
Coffey does not deny the safety concerns with sharing breast milk.
"There are definite risks to what we're doing. We are accepting a bodily fluid from a stranger for our child to eat," she said.
Coffey says she always asks donor moms about diseases, medications and food and alcohol intake. "I haven't accepted all donor milk for those exact reasons," she added. "But if they're safely nursing their own children, I have to have some sort of faith that they're doing that with a clear conscience. That they're not harming their own children."
While Updergrove believes donating milk to any mom is an act of kindness, she calls breast milk a scarce resource. "
Just like with organ donation or blood donation, we have to prioritize this resource," she explained. Milk banks currently prioritize breast milk donations to babies who need it most in intensive care units, Updegrove said.
We have tiny, fragile babies that fit in the palm of my hand who don't have life-saving human milk. And every healthy lactating mom should consider herself a potential lifesaver," she explained. "The amount of milk it takes to feed a healthy full-term baby every day could easily provide for several pre-term babies in the hospital."
Evans said milk banks, including hers in Raleigh, desperately need more donor milk.
"The informal milk sharing does take away from the milk banks," Evans added.
Updegrove estimates hospitals would need 9.5 million ounces per year to feed the pre-term babies in the U.S. Last year, she said, non-profit milk banks in the country provided about 2.5 million ounces.
"It's not enough," she said.
With her first pregnancy, Kevorkian donated to WakeMed's milk bank. For confidentiality reasons, she could not know who received the milk. The desire to build a relationship with the family and babies receiving her milk led her to online options this time around.
"It's so nice to be able to see the babies drinking bottles and knowing that they are getting breast milk," she said.
Coffey is grateful for the time and energy Kevorkian spends pumping milk for Natalie.
"It's exactly what she needs. It's food. It's medicine. And it's love," she insisted. "I feel like I'm doing the best thing I can for my baby. The proof is the pudding. She is healthy," she explained.
Updegrove said she and other milk bank directors like Evans work to share success storied with milk bank donors, and even have events to unite donors and recipients without breaking confidentiality.
FDA's stance and resources about breast milk sharing:
Human Milk Banking Association of North America: https://www.hmbana.org/
WakeMed's Mother's Milk Bank: http://www.wakemed.org/landing.cfm?id=135