Text: Patricia Michaud

Is it the end of the black market for white gold?

The first breast milk bank in French-speaking Switzerland will open its doors in a few months. Supplied by volunteer donors, this human milk bank aims to meet the needs of premature infants and mothers who cannot breastfeed.

It’s called white gold. But, ironically, human breast milk is traded on the black market. On social media, negotiations are intense for this sweet treat. In Switzerland, several Facebook groups exist around it, including “Human Milk 4 Human Babies” (nearly 1,500 members) and Lait’change. It can be shared freely between mothers. But the precious elixir can be sold online for up to 200 Swiss francs for 100 ml, which is barely half a bottle!

Formula is a valid option, but health experts agree that breast milk offers many virtues. “It is a complex and dynamic biological system that the food industry has not yet managed to reconstitute,” says Céline Fischer Fumeaux, senior physician of the CHUV’s Neonatal Service.

Long-term benefits

Breast milk provides infants with nutrients that are perfectly adapted to their growth. These agents enhance the immune system and significantly protect newborns. It may even reduce sudden infant death syndrome. In the long term, studies show that breastfeeding protects the child against diabetes and obesity.

Less well known to the general public are the many benefits breastfeeding brings the mother. “The oxytocin released during breastfeeding helps the uterus contract to its original size. This reduces the risk of haemorrhage after birth.” It has also been observed that women who make this choice are less susceptible to post-partum depression. Breastfeeding also provides longer-term protection against certain types of cancer, including ovarian and breast cancer, as well as other diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Not to mention the environmental and economic benefits.

But the one category for which breast milk is particularly important is newborns in vulnerable situations, whether because they are premature, have a low birth weight or are sick. “Breast milk has additional advantages for these infants,” Céline Fischer Fumeaux says. “In particular, it is a protective factor against a number of serious neonatal complications. The most fearsome of these is necrotising enterocolitis, a disease affecting the intestines.” Studies suggest that giving babies breast milk, instead of formula, can reduce the occurrence of this disease by half. “Reports also show shorter hospital stays for premature infants fed with breast milk, as well as positive effects on their longer-term development.”

An innovative partnership

Like the healthcare staff specialised in paediatrics and neonatal care, many health organisations advocate feeding babies breast milk for as long as possible. “Ideally, of course, the infant should be fed his or her own mother’s milk, which is perfectly adapted to the baby’s needs,” the expert says. However, milk production often stops with premature birth. While coping with the emotional shock of the event, mothers often have insufficient or no milk for their own child, at a time when the baby needs it most, because the newborn is even more vulnerable than if the pregnancy had lasted until term.

Human milk banks actually came about in order to offer these families an alternative to infant formula. With 280 of them in Europe, these facilities provide premature babies with breast milk from donors. In early 2022, Lausanne will open the first human milk bank in French-speaking Switzerland, while eight already operate in German-speaking Switzerland. Supported by the Department of Health and Social Action for the canton of Vaud, the CHUV signed an innovative partnership with the organisation Interregional Transfusion Service SRC, specialised in the supply of blood products and derivatives.

To guarantee the quality of the milk, donors are required to take a blood test. The milk is also tested for viruses and bacteria. Donations are then pasteurised and frozen to be stored properly. “Of course, pasteurisation does alter the quality of the milk, but it is definitely the second-best way to feed an infant in these situations, after the newborn’s own mother’s milk,” says Céline Fischer Fumeaux, who leads the project. She is delighted to see the enthusiasm around the milk bank. As soon as the launch was officially announced, many women spontaneously offered to become donors.

Several hundred litres for a single infant

In the future, the idea would be to expand the offer and provide milk for healthy babies whose mothers cannot or do not wish to breastfeed. This is a sensitive point in the policy of encouraging breastfeeding. While the majority of parents recognise the benefits of it, some criticise the excessive social pressure to breastfeed, because it is not necessarily compatible with their lifestyle. “When our bank reaches its cruising speed, it is expected to produce more than 300 litres of milk per year,” the project leader says.
This milk will primarily cover the needs of more than 100 to 200 premature newborns, or babies with other conditions, during their hospitalisation. But it takes several hundred litres to cover the needs of a single healthy, average-weight newborn for six months.

Parents of healthy infants who decide not to breastfeed will therefore have to continue choosing between formula and informal sharing networks. “While well intended, this type of supply is not recommended by experts,” says Céline Fischer Fumeaux. “As the milk is not checked, it could contain viruses or bacteria, and even toxins (nicotine, alcohol, drugs) due to the donor’s use.” However, it is important to continue giving women freedom over the issue of breastfeeding and to guarantee safe alternatives to the strict standards for infant formulas given as a substitute for breast milk.

For the time being, it’s about protecting women who choose to breastfeed. “Switzerland has a lot of room for improvement compared with other countries,” Céline Fischer Fumeaux explains. Even though, since 2014, labour law allows for breastfeeding breaks, many women still find it difficult to return to work while breastfeeding. /



Collected breast milk must be pasteurised. This photo was taken at the human milk bank in Bordeaux/Marmande, France, where 12,000 litres of milk is collected every year.

Six months of breastfeeding

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants breastfeed for six months, followed by followed by supplemental breastfeeding until the age of 2 or more. In Switzerland, it is recommended to introduce solid foods between the ages of four and six months. Paediatricians advise introducing other foods after six months of age, as breast milk no longer provides adequate nutritional content to cover all the baby’s needs, particularly iron intake.