SINGAPORE - Mother-of-two Audrey Yeo jokingly calls herself a cow because she feeds at least 15 babies with her breast milk.
"All I do all day is pump and pump, just like a cow," she said with a laugh.
She pumps about five litres of milk daily - about five times the amount for an average lactating mother.
The 28-year-old woman has been donating her breast milk for the past five months through Facebook group Human Milk 4 Human Babies-Singapore.
She even donates her milk to a five-month old girl across the Causeway whose mother works in Singapore.
Although doctors warn of the risks of infections in sharing breast milk, the parents who receive Madam Yeo's milk are grateful.
Madam Yeo, a school band instructor, bought a $600 freezer specially to store her breast milk. The freezer allows the milk to last for up to six months.
She has about 13 regular recipients. Most of them collect up to 100 packets of breast milk from her flat in Clementi monthly.
Madam Yeo has to feed her baby girl by bottle because the fast flow of milk from her breast might choke the child.
Her situation is unusual because lactating mothers produce an average of 800ml to 1,500ml per day, said lactation consultant Lim Peng Im of Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at National University Hospital.
Before they are introduced to solid food, most babies at six months drink between 720ml and 960ml of milk, according to nutritionists.
"Expressing a high volume of breast milk is not harmful to the mother, but the rush of milk from an overfull breast may cause discomfort and distress for the mother and the baby," said Ms Lim.
Ms Lim advises a woman in this situation to use the hand to express or pump for only 30 seconds or less, instead of emptying the breast, which will signal it to produce more milk.
Alternatively, the mother can feed from one breast for an extended period to slow down the milk production.
Malaysian Thoo Wai Lee, 28, who works in Singapore as an auditor, has been collecting breast milk from Madam Yeo for the past month.
Madam Thoo did not intend to feed her baby breast milk because it was a hassle to transport the milk to Johor Baru every weekend. But her five-month-old daughter, who is cared for by a relative in Malaysia, developed constipation after drinking formula.
The constipation stopped after she added some breast milk from a friend to the child's feed.
"Of course I know there are risks, but all mummies want the best for their babies and I don't think there are mummies who would want to hurt other babies," she said.
She thinks the risk of infections such as HIV is low since most mothers go for medical check-ups during pregnancy.
Madam Yeo is not paid for her efforts, but she encourages mothers to reimburse her for the storage bag, which costs at least 50 cents a piece.
Stored breast milk is usually kept in special double-ziplocked storage bags. Each bag can hold either 6 ounces or 8 ounces (177 or 250 ml).
Her daughters, who are six months and three years old, drink only a total of 1.5 litres of milk a day. She was researching on the use of expired milk when she found the online group.
"With my first child, I threw away a lot of excess milk because I didn't know what to do with it. It was such a waste."
Before she started donating her milk, she was throwing away about 10 bags of breast milk a day.
Said Madam Yeo, who pumps milk every two hours: "Breast milk has many benefits and I wanted to help other mothers and babies."
When she tried to cut down on expressing milk, she ended up with a fever often because of her engorged breasts.
"My fever stopped after I started pumping milk every two hours instead of three," said Madam Yeo, who does not take any caffeine and seafood.
"I have to give up my favourite chilli crab and I don't take anything that would boost my milk supply."
Her husband, Mr Edwin Chiong, 32, a project engineer, said: "I don't like it because she's always pumping, pumping, pumping. Always no time to sleep or do other things.
"Looking at her going through so much hardship, I feel the pain, too."
Madam Yeo said that she usually recommends that the milk be given to babies who are close to her child's age, based on doctors' advice.
Mr Bosco D'Cruz, 34, and his wife Audrey Lek, 32, collect 100 bags of Madam Yeo's milk each month.
The couple's four-month-old son, Leon, has been given Madam Yeo's breast milk since he was a week old.
Said Mr D'Cruz: "I was breastfed when I was a child and I rarely fall sick and have never broken a bone, but my sister, who is allergic to breast milk, has always been sickly.
"We are very thankful. Our boy is healthy, strong and happy."
RISKS IN SHARING BREAST MILK
There are potential risks in sharing breast milk, warned gynaecologist Yong Tze Tein.
In particular, there is a concern of the spread of infectious diseases, such as HIV, through breast milk, said Dr Yong, a senior consultant at Singapore General Hospital's department of obstetrics and gynaecology.
But she noted that the risk of infection from a single bottle of breast milk from a HIV-positive mother is small.
Experts have long recommended breastfeeding till the child is 12 months old and thereafter as long as mother and child desire.
Benefits include optimum nutrition, as the composition of breast milk is constantly changing to meet the baby's nutritional needs, and protection against a range of health issues such as diarrhoea, lung and ear infections and allergies.
Studies have shown that breastfed children have lower blood pressure and total cholesterol, as well as a reduced risk of obesity and diabetes later in life.
Unlike countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Australia, Singapore does not have a regulated milk bank.
Dr Yong, who is also the president of the Association for Breastfeeding Advocacy, thinks that a public milk bank is not feasible at the moment because of supply and demand.
"Having a milk bank is definitely safer. (But) it is not feasible at the moment because our breastfeeding rates, although improving, are not that high yet.
"It is expensive to run because donors need to be screened and proper pasteurisation and storage are necessary."
Instead of buying formula...
The Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB) is an international online community involving 52 countries and more than 20,000 members.
It was started by Canadian-based activist Emma Kwasnica in 2010 after she was outraged that a well-known online doctor had plans to peddle his brand of formula milk.
HM4HB promotes breast milk and foster a community of local families to share breast milk, according to their website. It is a volunteer-only network with no funding or financial support. The sale of breast milk is banned.
On Facebook, the Singapore group has about 1,500 likes and many active posts from mothers who wish to donate their milk and requests from others for breast milk.
Posts from donors usually include details about their diet, lifestyle and age of child.
Mr Chakilam Phani Bhooshan, 36, an IT consultant, has been getting breast milk for his year-old child from the group for the past year. He usually asks for details such as the mother's medical history and age of the child.
While he takes precautions, he believes that there is a system of trust in the community.
"I believe mothers are all on the same side. Breast milk is the foundation of my child's growth and the benefits will last through his life," said Mr Chakilam.
Ms Felicia Ang, 22, has been on the HM4HB page for the past two months. She donates her breast milk because of oversupply and because her freezer was running out of space.
"The experience is good. Everyone around me was so impressed with me and all of them are very supportive about it," said Ms Ang, who intends to breastfeed until her five-month-old baby is a year old.
This article was published on April 26 in The New Paper.
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