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Online communities revive wet nurse tradition

natalie scobie
Luis Enrique Ascui
SHARING MILK: Natalie Scobie and 16-month-old Max: milk-sharing preferred to using formula.

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A growing number of Australian mothers are turning to the age-old tradition of wet-nursing to help feed their newborns.

They are seeking online communities such as Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB) - a Facebook milk-sharing network with 4000 Australian members.

But health authorities have warned of the risk of transmitting infectious diseases, such as hepatitis or HIV, from sharing unscreened breast milk.

Natalie Scobie, a mother of four, sourced milk through the Victorian HM4HB page when son Max had difficulty feeding at three months.

She said small risks associated with milk-sharing seemed less than those of using formula.

''When my son was a bit vulnerable, I wanted to give him what I felt was the safest option [and] at the end of the day, human milk is designed for human babies and you just can't get better than that,'' Ms Scobie said.

All donors provided the results of post-natal blood tests and information about lifestyle habits such as alcohol and caffeine consumption.

''All the women we've come across have been so generous and pleased to be able to help,'' Ms Scobie said. ''There's nothing in it for the donor so I didn't feel there was any reason to feel sceptical about it.''

Dr Ben Hartmann established Australia's first human milk bank for premature babies, at the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Perth, and acknowledged the long history of milk-banking and wet-nursing. But he warned of the potential risks.

''These sites that are suggesting that mothers share their breast milk, especially mothers who are unknown to each other, it brings in a very big element of trust,'' he said.

Dr Hartmann said mothers with healthy newborns shouldn't discount infant formula as a short-term option to supplement their own supply.

Dr Lisa Amir, of the Mother and Child Health Research Centre at La Trobe University, said the anxiety around the transmission of HIV meant people were often horrified at the idea of sharing milk now.

''Overall the risks of anyone contracting infection is probably very low, but health professionals are concerned because there is that risk,'' she said.

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- Sydney Morning Herald

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