When Jenna Sternbach of New York City became pregnant for the fourth time in her late 30s, she knew she wouldn’t produce enough milk to feed baby Archer.
Her three older children were all born when she was in her 20s, and Sternbach ended up having a breast reduction surgery after they all grew up and weaned from breast milk.
“I was entirely concerned,” Sternbach told InsideEdition.com. “[My husband and I] both felt like the best thing for Archer is to get donor milk.”
Sternbach reached out to her lactation consultant, Kate DiMarco Ruck, who introduced her to a community of moms on Facebook – some of whom were oversuppliers happy to share milk. Others were like Sternbach, and needed donor milk for various reasons – some moms were on medications incompatible with breastfeeding, others couldn’t produce milk because of a mastectomy, trauma during birth or just a delay in establishing their own milk supply.
But even Sternbach, who is now deeply entrenched in the community, was initially concerned about the safety of linking up with women she didn’t know, and feeding her baby what they said was safe.
“You are [basically] Craigslist-ing,” she joked. “You’re meeting a stranger off the internet and taking what they say at face value, and giving that to your child.”
DiMarco Ruck explained there are several forms of milk sharing – both formal and informal.
“There are formal milk banks all over the world that collect milk from different donors – they fill out an application, they talk to someone that does intake, they share health test results,” DiMarco Ruck explained. “[The milk is] ultimately screened for different pathogens and diseases and all of that milk is mixed together and pasteurized.
“Obtaining pasteurized donor milk from a certified milk bank is expensive, and most of it is reserved for hospitals, babies in the NICU, preemies, sick babies. We’re not at the point where it’s available for every baby – although, wouldn’t that be great?” DiMarco Ruck continued.
Instead, many parents who wish to supply their babies with all the benefits of human breast milk might turn to each other through a more informal process of milk sharing.
“Human milk is the perfect food for the baby. It is designed and evolved with the species, it protects from illness, it helps build the baby’s cut, it contains stem cells to repair the baby’s organs and tissues,” DiMarco Ruck explained. “It’s becoming more and more common as people are learning the benefit of feeding their baby human milk.”
DiMarco Ruck suggests that moms looking for donor milk can ask for donors to provide health records that show they have been tested for HIV, HTLV, hepatitis B and C and tuberculosis.
While most medications like antidepressants or caffeine use are not proven to have negative effects on babies if transmitted through breast milk, DiMarco Ruck suggests having open communication about these factors in addition to diet and food sensitivities when deciding which donor milk to use.
“It’s up to you as to whether that’s something you care that your child is receiving in the milk,” she explained.
DiMarco Ruck also said it’s crucial that no money is exchanged in the transaction.
“When people are looking to sell milk or profit off breast milk, that’s where you don’t actually know what you’re getting into,” she warned. “This should be a relationship that’s been established out of generosity or kindness of someone’s heart.”
And, moms can opt for donor milk that is flash-pasteurized at home as an extra precaution.
“It can destroy a number of pathogens and it retains the greatest amount of beneficial properties of the milk,” she explained.
For Wendy Cruz-Chan, one of the most important factors as to whether she shares her milk with moms in need is how comfortable she is during the transaction. She said it’s crucial that she has a chance to get to know her recipient and their family in addition to sharing information about herself.
“It’s coming out of my body to give to another little human body,” she told InsideEdition.com. “It’s very personal. It’s very intimate. I definitely want to know why they need my breast milk.”
Cruz-Chan’s journey with donating her breast milk started in 2016, when she lost her firstborn son in stillbirth.
“I was lactating after my stillbirth so I pumped for three months straight, every three hours, day and night,” Cruz-Chan, who works as a doula, recalled. “I wanted to honor my son. I didn’t want him to die and then that’s it. I wanted his name to be remembered and I wanted him to feel like I’m doing something for him.”
She made headlines during that time after donating more than 16 gallons of breast milk to six different babies in her area.
She was lucky enough to become pregnant again about a year later, and gave birth to a healthy little girl, who is now about 15 months old. Cruz-Chan once again had an oversupply, so she continued to donate her excess milk, feeding four more babies in the months after her second pregnancy.
“I still feel like I have more to give,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of babies who need it. Why can’t I help them out?”
Cruz-Chan said it’s important to her that the receiving mom has a good understanding of her breast milk.
“I show them the proof of immunizations, my proof of vaccines, I disclose my diet, what I tend to stay away from, what I’m allergic to, whether I’ve been exposed to secondhand smoking,” she explained. “If they feel uncomfortable with certain foods or lifestyles then I just move on.”
Similarly, she said it’s crucial the receiving mother also help her build her comfort level by sharing a bit about their family.
She recalled one mother who asked her to share excessive details, including what she was eating for each meal, while being extremely secretive about her own family and her circumstances for receiving donor milk.
“I decided not to give her [milk] again because she was so secretive,” Cruz-Chan said. “I’m being so open, so I expect that same person to be open to me as well.”
Her ideal partnership is one in which both families can stay in touch.
“How’s the baby growing? How’s the baby thriving? [You can reach out] if you need more milk, a long-term donation, any other types of resources,” she said. “It’s a relationship.”
Sternbach, who uses donor milk only during weeks when her supply is low, said that not only has she remained friends with most of the women who have donated to her baby, but that she was surprised at the bonds she built with mothers she may not have met under other circumstances.
“You’re standing in this house, and it’s this African American lady, then this Hasidic lady. Across every culture, ethnic backgrounds, these women are all out to do the right thing,” she said. “They’re so warm and kind, and I’m often sending pictures of Archer with the bottle, like ‘This is from you.’”
Sternbach said she is only comfortable doing at-home pickups, where she has a chance to see the way the donor and her family lives, and asks her partner to come along for an additional measure of safety.
“If I felt something was off, I wouldn’t give the milk to Archer,” she explained. “Generally, the mom is feeding the baby, the house is a really lovely, warm, functioning household and it instinctually feels like the right choice. If their baby is on their boob, I’m fairly confident it’s safe for my baby.”
They then run through a list of questions before Sternbach agrees to take the milk.
“They’re usually like, ‘Hey, this is my situation. I’m on medication and I want to let you know, if that’s a go for you or a no-go for you,’” she explained. “Two moms said they were both on different kinds of medication and my partner and I were not comfortable, so it was just not a good fit.”
Overwhelmingly, though, Sternbach said she has usually been impressed with these women’s dedication to supporting babies they don’t know and continues to learn about motherhood from the community, despite being a fourth-time mother.
“It’s like an act of heroism, they do it without thinking twice,” she said. “I never thought I’d end up here but it’s just a beautiful thing.”