‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could look up a wet nurse in Yellow Pages, then go for a night out, even when breastfeeding? They had wet nurses – women who’d breastfeed your baby for you – in days of yore,’ reads a post on Mumsnet.
While having a night out may not have been a factor, it’s true that wet nursing was common practice until the invention of reliable baby milk formula in the early 20th century. Wet nurses would be brought into the home if the mother was unable or didn’t want to nurse the child herself, or if the mother had died. Fast-forward to 2019, and while we rarely talk about sharing milk, that Mumsnet user’s fantasy is not as far-fetched as you’d imagine. In an interview in June, Lily Allen spoke of how she’d donated her own breast milk to Hammersmith hospital when ‘it became obvious my daughter wasn’t going to take it. ...[It] was an amazing thing to do.’
And she’s not alone. There are two routes for those in search of another woman’s milk to feed their baby: via one of the 17 NHS milk banks around the country, or through what’s become a more informal network. Three years ago, Kayleigh Holmes from South Wales was taken ill with an inflamed gallbladder and rushed to hospital. At the time, she had 14-month-old twins. ‘I was really unwell and on medication which meant I couldn’t breastfeed,’ she says. ‘And the babies were refusing formula.’ is, at an already difficult time, was incredibly stressful. ‘I was becoming quite panicked,’ explains Kayleigh, now 28.
Then someone put her in touch with a birth doula called Samantha Gadsden. ‘I started talking to Samantha via Facebook Messenger and within 30 minutes she’d turned up at my house, where the twins were with my partner while I was still in hospital,’ Kayleigh recalls. The babies were unreceptive to bottles, so Samantha breastfed them. Kayleigh, lying in her hospital bed, received a photo of her twins, ‘latched on and feeding. At first, it was a little overwhelming to see a perfect stranger feeding my babies,’ she remembers. ‘I was in hospital, alone and in a lot of pain. But it was also a huge relief to know that they were OK and well fed. I felt comforted.’
Samantha and Kayleigh have since become friends. ‘I’m in awe of Sam for doing that,’ Kayleigh says. ‘She had no obligation to help me, but she did it anyway.’ Samantha, 48, says that while this kind of milk sharing may be ‘a bit underground’, there is a growing community blossoming online of women who want to help each other. This includes Facebook page Human Milk for Human Babies, which has chapters all over the world; the UK account alone has over 21,000 likes. ‘I don’t think we are meant to raise our children alone. We’re meant to be part of a network and help each other out,’ says Samantha.
Beyond wet nursing (the physical act of breastfeeding another woman’s baby), Human Milk for Human Babies is also a community where mothers with surplus milk, such as Kat Bennewith, 32, from Godalming, can connect with those looking to get hold of it to bottle-feed their babies. When we speak on the phone, Kat is expressing. ‘I’m multitasking,’ she jokes. She recently had a baby girl who has Down’s syndrome. ‘With her condition also came atrioventricular septal defect, which affects the heart’s valves, so she was really weak,’ Kat says. ‘She didn’t gain any suck ability and was being fed by a tube.’ is meant Kat had to express her breast milk early on.
It quickly became clear to Kat, however, that her baby was only going to be able to take a limited amount of feed. ‘I actually produced too much milk. I was expressing about a litre a day – my freezer couldn’t hack it.’ Meanwhile, a friend was unable to produce enough milk for her own baby, so Kat decided to donate her excess to her. Of course, babies fed exclusively on formula can still thrive. But, says Debbie Barnett, co-chair of the charity UK Association of Milk Banks (UKAMB), ‘There’s a raft of evidence that breast milk is particularly beneficial for a baby’s immune system as it contains immunoglobulins, which are not present in formula.’
‘There are lots of women out there who – for whatever reason – can’t give milk to their babies,’ Kat says, ‘but they want their babies to have breast milk because of the properties it has. It doesn’t matter if it is another woman’s milk.’ After successfully donating to her friend, Kat discovered Human Milk for Human Babies. ‘I donated to two women on there right away. I wanted my milk to go to good use.’ After that, she started donating through an official NHS milk bank. ‘Certified milk banks are not the same as milk sharing,’ stresses Debbie. ‘Women are screened. It’s like a blood donation. After that, their milk is screened again for any wanted bacteria and then pasteurised.’
‘They’re amazing,’ says Kat. ‘They sent a bike to come and collect my milk. It was actually a huge help for me when I had such a sick child. Going through them meant the milk I was producing could go to neonatal wards and help really tiny babies in need.’ Going to an informal milk-sharing community means bypassing the regulations and screening in place at NHS milk banks. But, explains UKAMB’s Debbie, ‘Milk banks are often small and not well-funded, so they can only provide milk to neonatal units. I would love to see a much better system nationally so that women who need it have greater access to donated milk.’
Since her own breast milk crisis, Kayleigh has been able to pay the favour forward. After a friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, she stepped in as a wet nurse while her friend had chemotherapy. ‘Experiencing it from the other side was an emotional ride. At a time when you feel so helpless, it was something practical that I could do.’
‘I will be forever indebted to Samantha,’ Kayleigh says. ‘What she did to help me was incredible and it forged the beginning of a lifelong friendship.'