Across the Kootenays operates a hidden network of women who trade one of the world’s most valuable commodities – breastmilk.
Using social media, moms with excess milk connect with those unable to breastfeed, their harried husbands ferrying frozen milk from homes around the region and into the hungry mouths of their growing children.
It’s through this informal milk bank that babies and friendships are blossoming in the Elk Valley.
“Some people definitely would get the yuck factor but I think until you’ve actually breastfed your own child and know how special that is, and know that you could give that to somebody else… why wouldn’t you?” said Rachel Cline.
Rachel has been instrumental in connecting moms with potential donors and providing families with resources to help them decide whether peer-to-peer milk sharing is for them.
The Fernie mother-of-three is a physiotherapist, breastfeeding counsellor and doula, guiding moms through pregnancy, birth and parenthood as Mother Nurture Doulas.
Rachel’s own milk sharing journey started with her third child, who was born tongue tied and required finger feeding.
She donated her excess milk to her local milk bank in the UK and then via Facebook groups, Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies, a global network of parents, guardians and professionals who support the sharing of breastmilk.
When Rachel moved to Fernie in 2012, she found many of her doula clients were struggling with breastfeeding and maintaining milk supply.
“I could see that there was a need in town,” she said.
“What you’ve got to be very, very careful of is you can’t be seen to be soliciting for milk but, also, I don’t want to be the person that is getting milk from one mom and giving it to another mom, there needs to be that division.
“The contract and agreement has to be between each mother or each family, so I was seeing that there was a need and I was finding that I potentially was putting myself in an awkward position.”
So the Kootenay Milk Sharing Group was born.
Since 2015, the Facebook group has extended beyond Fernie to the entire Kootenays and its membership has swelled to 79 moms, who come and go as they need.
To protect members’ privacy, the group is not public and moms must know an existing member to join.
They use the platform to ask questions, connect with donors and share resources, and information from various health agencies.
No money is exchanged, with recipients instead providing donor moms with equipment such as breast pumps, which can cost anywhere between $300 and $3000.
Members of the Kootenay Milk Sharing Group also have access to three refurbished pumps funded through donations from the Elk Valley Thrift Shop Society, Dr. Karley Denoon Naturopathic Medicine and a GoFundMe page.
What do health experts say?
Professional opinion on peer-to-peer milk sharing and the use of unpasteurized donor human milk is mixed.
At a regulated milk bank, donor milk goes through a number of processes, including pasteurization to kill bacteria and viruses, before being dispensed.
The World Health Organization recommends milk from a donor or “wet nursing” over a human milk substitute (commercial infant formula).
Health Canada, the Canadian Paediatric Society, and the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, on the other hand, do not endorse the use of unpasteurized donor human milk for reasons including the potential risk for contamination, lack of control over proper collection and storage, and lack of knowledge or understanding of the donor’s health history.
However, the right of parents to make informed decisions regarding the care of their children is respected within the context of British Columbian and Canadian law.
With only four regulated milk banks in Canada – located in Calgary, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver – and strict criteria for recipients, most moms are unable to access donor milk from official sources.
Perinatal Services BC recognizes that informal milk sharing has occurred throughout history and across cultures, and is becoming more prevalent.
“In conjunction with an increased awareness of the importance of breastfeeding and human milk, and the risks associated with human milk substitutes (formula), the advent of online social networking has contributed to the rise of altruistic informal peer-to-peer milk sharing,” read the agency’s guidelines.
Rachel believes local health professionals in the Elk Valley are becoming more supportive of the practice.
“This is happening, so rather than ignore that it’s happening, let’s facilitate it happening in a safe manner,” she said.
To help mitigate the potential health risks, Rachel has drawn up a questionnaire for families to use when considering a donor.
Some families are very selective, preferring to only use milk from women screened by regulated milk banks, while others aren’t as particular.
“They need to make a decision that’s right for them,” said Rachel. “For some families, they still may choose to use formula and that’s totally OK, there’s no pressure from me or anybody else.
“But there’s a lot of women who feel very disappointed that they can’t breastfeed for whatever reason.”
One Fernie mom has singlehandedly helped six families through this difficult time.
Over the past year, Katya Choroszewski has donated nearly 50 litres of milk to six moms, as well as another 5.58 litres to the regulated milk bank in Calgary.
For six months in 2013, she also supported a Creston woman who had adopted a newborn baby while nursing her first child Tim.
Katya is prone to blocked milk ducts and when her third child James arrived, she began pumping once a day to ease her discomfort.
“That helped to alleviate the blocked ducts, so as a result I had milk every day that I didn’t need because I was breastfeeding him,” she said.
“I was putting it in my freezer and around that time, I saw someone make a post with the milk bank in Calgary, the NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank.
“I didn’t realize there was a milk bank and I’d kind of forgotten about donating, but that brought it to my mind and to my attention and I thought that could be somewhere for my milk to go, so I began the process of registering with them and getting screened.”
The community-based milk bank has a strict eligibility criteria for donors, who undergo extensive screening including a written questionnaire, blood work and physician’s approval.
At the same time Katya was approved as a donor, she met Elkford mom Kelly Jo Paris, who was unable to breastfeed.
She started saving milk for Kelly as well as another friend experiencing issues.
“Once I started, it was satisfying knowing that I could help people,” said Katya.
“I had an abundant supply and I knew that not everyone else could breastfeed.
“People desperately wanted to and for whatever reason, maybe they couldn’t or didn’t have as much milk as they needed.
“It was just satisfying that I could help people and it was no trouble off my back – it was 20 minutes of pumping and cleaning some parts every night and that wasn’t any trouble.
“It was pretty easy for me to make a difference in a baby’s life.”
A milk sharing journey comes full circle
L’wren Farkas is one local mom who has benefited from the generosity of women in the Kootenay Milk Sharing Group.
At age 30, the Island Lake Lodge restaurant manager suffered a stroke, which left her partially paralyzed and with a speech impediment, delaying her and husband Keith’s plans of starting a family together.
It took L’wren about a year to recover and once given the green light by her neurologist, she quickly became pregnant with Frankie, now three.
However, her troubles weren’t over yet.
“I just assumed that when I went to breastfeed that it would be easy and it wasn’t at all,” said L’wren.
“I had no milk and we found out through the breastfeeding clinic in Lethbridge that where my stroke had taken place is where breastfeeding signals come from, so I really struggled.
“I didn’t have any milk and had no idea what support systems were out there, I didn’t have any friends with kids yet.”
It was Rachel, who was L’wren’s brain injury worker then friend, who discussed the option of using donor milk. She put her in touch with local moms who could pump for her and fast, with Frankie dropping weight at an alarming rate.
“This community is amazing, within three days, three moms started pumping fresh milk for me and their husbands were dropping it off at the front door, and it was just completely overwhelming,” said L’wren.
“I get emotional even talking about it now because we didn’t know what we were going to do.”
For five weeks, these moms pumped constantly for L’wren until the part of her brain that had been affected by the stroke kicked into action and she began to produce her own milk.
L’wren’s milk sharing journey came full circle when she was able to donate excess milk to five moms while nursing Frankie.
When she became pregnant with Yozsef, now eight weeks, her anxiety about not being able to breastfeed returned.
“I was a little worried about the situation again and so I reached out to women in the Valley, and I had two moms come forward that pumped for a month for me, so that we had a personal bank ready in case I struggled again,” she said.
She didn’t and once Yozsef reached two weeks, L’wren gave the donated milk to another mom in need.
She is now pumping milk for two moms unable to breastfeed.
“It’s just the gift that keeps on giving,” said L’wren.
“I actually got to meet one (mom) yesterday and she cried, and said ‘we didn’t know what we would do without this gift’.
“For us, it was in crisis that we needed milk but the thing that I think is great for people to know is that it doesn’t need to be a crisis situation, it can just be to help relieve that initial stress, the first few days before a mom’s milk comes in.”
L’wren and Keith refer to the donor milk as a “gift” and the milk sharing group to the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child”.
“This is the truest example of that and just the dads being on board too,” said L’wren.
“Every partner was here dropping milk for their wives, it’s not just a woman’s thing, it’s a family thing.”
L’wren has become an advocate of peer-to-peer milk sharing since becoming involved in the Kootenay Milk Sharing Group.
Like Katya and Rachel, she has shared her story in the hope of helping more women realize the possibilities and benefits of milk sharing, and to break down any stigma attached to it.
“Just letting people know that it’s not taboo, it’s totally normal,” said L’wren.
“I’m so grateful that people were willing to anonymously help me and that in turn, I can now anonymously – or not anonymously – help others.”
Milk sharing group benefits Elkford family
Kelly Jo Paris’ eyes fill with tears as she recalls the moment she was told she wouldn’t be able to nurse her newborn son Eric.
With a family history of breastfeeding issues, the Elkford woman and her husband Brad Schweitzer had prepared for this moment, but it still hurt to hear.
Wretched with despair, Kelly clung to baby Eric for 24 hours and cried, apologizing over and over again for not being able to provide him with breastmilk.
Fortunately, a Fernie mom had been saving her excess breastmilk for the family and other members of the Kootenay Milk Sharing Group swiftly came to their aid.
“It was just this huge team and community supporting in whatever way they could whether it was pumping the milk, helping get the milk to us (or) ways to keep the milk frozen,” said Kelly.
“It was incredible and I’m so blessed that I had it.
“Knowing that I had these women just helped me get through all of it, knowing that he (Eric) was getting breastmilk even if it wasn’t mine, it meant the world to us.”
About 20 moms from across the Kootenays and Alberta donated milk to Eric, who fed up until 7.5 months thanks to their generosity.
Kelly and Brad used the Kootenay Milk Sharing Group and friends to find donors, even receiving an offer from Winnipeg, Manitoba, which they politely declined due to concerns about how the frozen milk would travel.
Women not only pumped for baby Eric but also helped to transport the milk, delivering it to Fernie from Cranbrook for Brad to collect.
“The moms in the community would pump for him and then put it into either bags or cylinders, and put it in their freezer, and I would go and pick it up about every two weeks,” said Brad.
“We’ve met some wonderful women in this process and found a support system that we weren’t even aware existed in the Valley as well.”
Kelly and Brad first learned of the informal milk sharing group through their doulas, Rachel Cline and Sally Bevand from Mother Nature Doulas.
The couple was open to the idea of using donor milk being paleo, a lifestyle that favours foods available to or eaten by humans during the Paleolithic era.
“We always ask ourselves… what would they have done before all this technology, before hospitals, before formula? If a baby was born and a mother couldn’t feed it then the baby would latch on the other women in the community… so it just made sense,” said Kelly.
“Breastmilk has immunization properties that formula doesn’t have and that was hugely important to us – that he was protected before he was of an age that he could be immunized. By receiving breastmilk from women in the community, he is being immunized against the pathogens going around in our community. It just made sense for our value system that he received breastmilk.”
When choosing donors, Kelly and Brad took a number of precautions to mitigate against the potential health risks of accepting their milk.
These included using moms screened by regulated milk banks or those with similar lifestyles and recommended by friends. They also used a questionnaire to vet moms.
“There was quite a few who we actually didn’t accept,” said Kelly.
“We went with our intuition and the questionnaire.”
Some were one-off or sporadic donors, while others, such as Fernie mom Katya Choroszewski, pumped daily for Eric.
Kelly has become close friends with Katya and many of the other women who supported her.
Kelly and Brad plan to use donor milk again as they grow their family, and hope to raise awareness about the Kootenay Milk Sharing Group.
“When I was out looking for donors, it was shocking how many women responded with ‘oh my goodness, I didn’t know this was a thing. Had I known this was a thing, I had all this milk that I got rid of’ or ‘had I known this was a thing, I would have reached out and done this for my baby’,” said Kelly.
“I’ve talked to a number of women who have had adoptions who wished they could have breastfed but didn’t know it was an option, so it’s more about just getting the word out there that this exists and you can do it if you so choose.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the Kootenay Milk Sharing Group can contact Rachel Cline at Mother Nurture Doulas via 250-946-6322 or firstname.lastname@example.org.