Wendi McKay knows what it feels like to want to breast feed her child, but being incapable of doing so.
The mother of four from Prince George had difficulty feeding her first two children and had no other options to get them breast milk, which she considers "the perfect food" for babies.
She's been fortunate to be able to feed her two youngest naturally and is able to help others in the process by sharing surplus breast milk through a peer-to-peer online service.
"It just sort of came up in my (Facebook) newsfeed one day," she said. "I looked into it, and I thought, 'wow if that resource had been available to me, for my first two kids, if I'd known about it, I'd be right in there."
McKay had stumbled across the B.C. branch of Human Milk 4 Human Babies, a North American wide network that puts mothers who have breast milk to share in contact with mothers who need it.
It's an informal service, basically those who have the product post that it's available and those that need it post they want it. If the donor and the recipient are in the same place, they can get in touch and arrange a transfer.
McKay, who is currently breast feeding 10-week-old Ginger, made her transfer earlier this month. She gave about 200 ounces of milk to a woman from Vanderhoof, whom she's never met.
Although there are no rules against sharing breast milk, Health Canada cautions against the practice because of the risk of transmitting diseases. It's possible to transmit viruses like HIV through breast milk and other bacteria can also be passed on.
"Obtaining human milk from the Internet or directly from individuals raises health concerns because, in most cases, medical information about the milk donors is not known," Health Canada wrote in a statement on its website.
However, mothers like McKay are taking precautions. She acknowledged there is a risk to sharing milk, but she said mothers involved in the program exchange as much information as possible before the transfer.
"There's a huge trust issue," she said. "People ask the right questions: Do you have any diseases? Do you drink? Do you smoke? Do you take drugs? Do you eat a variety of foods?"
Although Health Canada advises against sharing "unprocessed" human milk, it has no problems with breast milk banks. The banks have more safeguards in place to prevent the transmission of diseases, such as prescreening questionnaires and pasteurization.
Banks also often combine the milk from at least four different donors to provide recipient children with a variety of nutrients.
The Canadian Paediatric Society wrote in a position paper in 2010 that human milk banks are safe and should be recommended as along as parents are given the relevant data to make an informed choice. However, the society also cautions that any milk exchanged should be pasteurized.
McKay said breast milk banks are great in theory, but the cost of running them can make the milk prohibitively expensive. She believes a peer-to-peer model allows more women the chance to access the service.
There are only two operating banks in Canada, one in Vancouver and a new one in Calgary.
Peer-to-peer sharing is still in it's infancy in Prince George, with only a fraction of the posts on the B.C. Human Food 4 Human Babies website coming from the region.
McKay said she feels it's a shame that people seem reticent to talk about sharing milk, because she believes it's a great way to promote health in as many babies as possible.
"It's a much better, and in my opinion safer choice than formula," she said. "Obviously if you don't have that option, your baby has to eat something. But (breast milk) is the perfect food."
Another obstacle to the sharing of breast milk is perception. Some people simply don't feel comfortable with the notion of sharing what amounts to a bodily fluid.
"There is an ickiness factor, which is weird when you think about it," McKay said. "We give our children cow's milk, it's meant for baby cows. We'd rather give our babies that than milk from our own bodies that we're meant to have."