London - As a committed healthy eater, mother-of-two, Rebecca Poole fully took on board the oft-trumpeted advice that "breast is best" and was determined to nurse her babies for as long as possible.
Sadly, that turned out to be rather more difficult than she’d anticipated. Despite her best efforts, breastfeeding just didn’t seem to "work" for her and baby, Lily, who’s now three.
So she resorted to formula milk - a psychological trauma that proved so great Rebecca ended up on antidepressants.
After the birth of her second child, Theo, last February, when the same supply problems reared their head, Rebecca opted to do what she considered "the next best thing": feed him another woman’s breast milk.
Incredible though it may seem to those who thought wet nursing was a practice from a bygone age, Rebecca, 33, is among a growing army of women receiving expressed breast milk from other mothers. Perhaps inevitably, these transactions occur over the internet.
"I realise that many people, even some of my family and friends, find it weird that I’m happy to feed my baby someone else’s breast milk," admits Rebecca, who tutors personal trainers. "But I think any mother who has been determined to exclusively breastfeed her child, and then found herself unable to do so, will understand."
So much is known about the benefits of nursing babies for as long as possible. The World Health Organisation recommends you do it for a year - as it boosts their immune systems and their brain power, and some studies have even suggested that human milk could help kill off cancerous cells.
"Not being able to produce enough for Lily was devastating. I would be in tears making up bottles of formula because I knew it wasn’t as good for her," says Rebecca.
Rebecca came across the Facebook page for an organisation called Human Milk 4 Human Babies UK, where she posted a request for a breast milk donor.
That same day, two mums living within an hour of her home in Wolverhampton, West Midlands, volunteered their services (the group operates on an entirely altruistic basis). After corresponding with both, Rebecca chose Sarah McHugh, whose child was two months younger than Theo and who lived in nearby Kidderminster. A few nights later Rebecca drove to Sarah’s house, in what the two women said felt like an "illicit exchange", to collect bags of her frozen breast milk.
"Of course, I had my reservations and was keen to meet Sarah in her home environment," says Rebecca. "I wouldn’t want to give my four-month-old baby milk that came from a dirty house, or from someone I couldn’t trust to wash their hands, because I’d worry it would put him at risk of infections.
"But I was reassured the minute I pulled up outside. It was a beautiful, well-maintained house with a nice car on the driveway.
"Also, I was lucky because Sarah told me that she donates to hospital neonatal wards, and she explained that she had been through their stringent screening process to ensure she didn’t have any diseases and was trained in ensuring the milk was sterile."
Because increasing numbers of women are determined to breastfeed their children at any cost, doctors and public health experts have grave concerns about the growing, unregulated, practice of milk sharing - and the risk of infection it poses to infants. Dr Sarah Steele, a senior public health researcher at Jesus College, Cambridge, who has done extensive work in this area, warns: "Would I feed my infant milk off the internet? Definitely not. How can you possibly know how safely it was expressed and stored?
"Despite having the best of intentions, you could be passing on HIV, hepatitis, syphilis or, if the mother hasn’t washed her hands properly, a food-borne illness such as E.coli or salmonella which can, in worst-case scenarios, lead to death."