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Cross-Nursing is Not Healthy

Posted Feb 19 2009 6:28pm

Many bloggers and breastfeeding fans have been praising Salma Hayek for breastfeeding a hungry boy in Sierra Leone during a recent humanitarian trip. However, I am appalled that she would even think this a good idea. While I think it’s great to get some good publicity about breastfeeding, I have a few major concerns:

First of all: She tells us a story about how her GREAT grandmother once did the same thing for a mom whose milk dried up and her baby was crying in the street.

News to Salma: Her GREAT grandmother did not have to worry about the HIV virus. We do not want women thinking that it is okay to go around and nurse each others children. Unless you know the mother's full medical history (and her current sleeping partners), please don’t let her nurse your baby. And if you yourself are not sure of your medical status, please don’t take it upon yourself to be a do-gooder and nurse your friend’s child. This is a different generation, with different concerns.

Next: It is surprising that she did not think about her own safety. We know that mom’s cells can pass through the placenta to her baby. But there is also evidence that baby’s cells can pass to mom through the breast. There is even research that proves that moms who receive a donor kidney from a breastfed child fare better than moms who receive a donor kidney from a non-breastfed child. This may prove that there is some reciprocity going on during breastfeeding and that the mother and child may share more than just a bond.

Last: I don’t think that Salma Hayek gave the mother or the baby any long term benefit. It is like that saying “Give a man a fish, and feed him a meal. Teach him how to fish, and feed him forever.” Moms in Sierra Leone are often told to stop breastfeeding because their husbands deem it taboo to sleep with a lactating woman. There is a lot of education that needs to happen here! Certainly babies in Sierra Leone need breast milk to protect themselves from diseases (and even HIV if they breastfeed exclusively), but having someone nurse your baby once is not going to do anyone any good. I will give it to Salma Hayek that she does prove that you can be sexy and breastfeed! Hopefully that will be the takeaway message to the Sierra Leone men.

My opinion: If you want breast milk but don’t have any of your own, go to a reputable human milk bank (they screen the milk and pasteurize it). It costs about $20 for 4 ounces (yes it is that valuable!). Or learn to re-lactate; it is doable and has been done by many mothers who want to “turn back the clock,” after making the decision to formula-feed. If you have a close friend or relative that you know very well, it is probably okay to use their milk, especially in an emergency situation.

I want to reiterate that cross-nursing is not encouraged by lactation professionals. I understand that this is a widely practiced tradition in certain circles. If you choose to do it, I encourage you to do it safely and ask yourself if you really know that the milk is free of the HIV virus.

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