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When breast milk provides more than nourishment

Katie Ansley, right, donates her breast milk to Julie De Sousa, left, who has had trouble breastfeeding her newborn.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

The practice of milk sharing – when women donate or sell their breast milk to mothers who are unable to breastfeed – is controversial. Health Canada warns that milk shipped from unscreened donors can contain harmful bacteria or illnesses like HIV, and research backs this up: A recent study in the journal Pediatrics found 75 per cent of breast milk bought online in the United States had potentially harmful bacteria. There are only three hospital-run milk banks in Canada that provide breast milk that is screened for dangerous contaminants – in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto – and the milk is reserved for critically ill, premature babies. Due to the lack of supply, some women are ignoring Health Canada's warnings and turning online to websites that pair them with other women who will sell or donate their coveted milk supply. And sometimes the result can benefit the mothers as much as the babies.

When Katie Ansley's daughter Bridget was stillborn six weeks before her due date, the 28-year-old nurse from Toronto was devastated.

As Ansley grieved, a new mother across town was grappling with a different type of heartache. Julie De Sousa was unable to produce enough breast milk to feed her newborn daughter, Adelle, who was born just three days before Bridget died. "I felt that I was being inadequate, not able to feed my daughter," says De Sousa, 31.

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For two months De Sousa tried everything, from domperidone, a prescription drug that increases milk production, to hiring a lactation consultant, to formula, which she says upset Adelle's stomach.

Finally, De Sousa's lactation consultant suggested she check out Human Milk for Human Babies, a milk-sharing forum on Facebook. The network connects women interested in sharing milk for free and is comprised of 91 local affiliations across the globe moderated by volunteers, with 16 groups in Canada, from Vancouver Island to Nunavut. While members don't register, the network's global site has been "liked" on Facebook more than 31,000 times.

De Sousa posted about her ordeal and received many offers. But it wasn't until Ansley reached out almost a week later that she felt she had found her match.

A nurse, Ansley had worked in breast-feeding clinics and seen hundreds of women's struggles – including her own. Ansley had trouble initially producing milk for Abigail, her first child, now two years old, and never forgot her panic of being down to her "last bag" in the freezer.

But it was Bridget's death that inspired her to donate her breast milk. "It just feels like that milk was meant to nurse somebody," she says.

De Sousa was touched by Ansley's desire to honour her daughter's memory. And Ansley felt an instant connection with the new mom because of their shared struggles with breastfeeding. She originally wanted to donate to the the Rogers Hixon Ontario Human Milk Bank at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, but could not pump five litres in three months – the minimum required to donate.

Days later, De Sousa drove from her downtown Toronto condo to Ansley's home in Scarborough. Aware of Health Canada's warnings about contamination risks, De Sousa was relieved to learn that Ansley was regularly tested for hepatitis and HIV at her nursing job.

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Sitting in her kitchen, she asked Ansley about her health history and diet and snuck a peek at what Ansley fed her own daughter Abigail for lunch. She was happy to see a plate filled with vegetables. Abigail still breastfeeds at age 2, and Ansley felt some peace of mind knowing that the milk she'd be getting was deemed good enough for De Sousa's own child.

That day, Ansley gave De Sousa the first instalment of what De Sousa calls "liquid gold": 1.5 L of pumped, labelled and frozen breast milk.

Since then, De Sousa says Adelle's health has improved. Ansley is taking domperidone to keep her milk supply up, and pumps about 150 millitres a day for Adelle in addition to breastfeeding her own daughter. The milk lasted De Sousa about a month, while Ansley pumps more for the next drop-off.

"As long as she's getting breast milk, I don't care what form she gets it," De Sousa says.

De Sousa says knowing she is providing for her daughter – even if it's with someone else's breast milk – has given her a sense of closeness she once thought was only possible through breastfeeding. "Now when I'm feeding her a bottle full of breast milk I still have that happy feeling that I'm nourishing my baby," she says. She e-mails Ansley frequently, letting her know how she and Adelle are doing, and sends her pictures. Ansley in turn has put these photos of mother and baby into a scrapbook remembering Bridget.

Ansley, who calls Adelle her "milk baby," says donating her milk has helped her channel her grief. Knowing Adelle, and seeing the baby thrive on her own milk, has given her some peace.

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Every night, after nursing Abigail and putting her to bed, Ansley pumps more milk for Adelle. "She would be the same age as my daughter, so in that sense it still feels like I'm pumping for my daughter," he says.

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