We’ve tackled a vast range of different foods and products in the Is It Vegan? section of our site, from the obvious (such as rice) to the contentious (we’re looking at you, palm oil). Some of them are rather straightforward and are quite clearly either vegan or not vegan. Others are a little more complicated. And, breast milk – yes, milk from a human breast – might veer towards the more complicated end of the spectrum. So, strap yourselves in as we attempt to answer the question that is on at least some people’s lips: is breast milk vegan?
First, we’ll look at the more clear-cut situation that involves babies drinking the breast milk of their mother. Then, we’ll examine the slightly more complicated instances such as cross-nursing, shared feeding and wet nurses (no, they did not only exist in Shakespeare’s day!). We’ll also take a look at what some people might find just a little weird… breast milk ice cream anyone?!
Is Breastfeeding Babies Vegan?
In the same way that cow’s milk is designed by nature to provide all the nutrients that a baby cow needs, so human breast milk can provide all the nutrients that a baby needs. The exact point at which a baby no longer requires breast milk will depend on a number of factors, including the preferences of the mother in question and how well the baby has adapted to solid food. It is recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other health bodies that babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their life.
As we discuss in our article on vegan baby formula, there are various situations in which it may not be possible or desirable for a baby to be breastfed. But assuming it is and the parents of the baby want them to be vegan (because clearly they have no way of making their own mind up before they’ve mastered basic verbal or motor skills), is this a good option? In this scenario, would the baby still be sticking to the principles of veganism if they consumed breast milk?
In the widely accepted definition of veganism, as formulated by the Vegan Society, it states (among other things), “In dietary terms [veganism] denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” If taken literally, given that humans are part of the kingdom Animalia and hence are animals and that breast milk derives wholly from humans, consuming breast milk would not be vegan.
The Mother’s Consent
But we do not take that part of the definition literally in relation to breast milk for one very important reason: consent. If a mother willingly gives her breast milk to her child, in our eyes this makes the part of the definition of veganism we mentioned null and void. Cows locked in a farm who are forced to lactate for the benefit of humans are not given the choice. They do not sign a consent form and are certainly not willing participants in the process. Though at times, breastfeeding mothers might feel like a slave to their hungry baby, ultimately, they are choosing to provide their milk as nourishment for their baby.
The definition also states that “veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals”. In that case, given that the WHO, the NHS and various nutritional bodies suggest breast milk is the best option for a baby, it could be argued that not giving them breast milk could be deemed less vegan than giving them it. Not least because there are very few viable vegan-friendly options when it comes to baby formula.
According to the NHS, breastfeeding gives health benefits to both the baby and the mother. A breastfed baby is thought to have a lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), obesity and cardiovascular disease (in adulthood). A mother who breastfeeds, meanwhile, reduces her risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, obesity and cardiovascular disease. As such, breastfeeding and breast milk could be argued to help rather than hinder (human) animals and hence, in our eyes, it conforms to vegan ideals.
Are Wet Nurses, Shared Feeding & Cross-Nursing Vegan?
Many vegan parents have asked the question about whether children should be vegan or whether they should be left to make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so. But how many parents – vegan or not – have pondered whether they should employ a wet nurse or take part in cross-nursing or shared feeding? Perhaps more than you think!
Apparently, such arrangements are making a comeback in the UK, as the practicalities of balancing work and raising children force some mothers to look for more imaginative or convenient solutions. Of course, they could express their own milk and bottle it up for others to give to the baby, but the need to sterilise bottles and store the breast milk is off-putting for some.
Many parents would not be too keen on their baby being breastfed by someone else. But whatever you feel about it, would it contravene the ideals of veganism? As with breastfeeding in general, the baby would be consuming milk that has derived from an animal (a human in this case). But also, as with breastfeeding from the baby’s mother, there is presumed (or in this case probably explicitly given) consent on the part of the woman whose breast milk it is. For us, this means that no cruelty or harm is coming to an animal and – as with a mother breastfeeding a baby – both animals in question (baby and breastfeeding woman) will be gaining benefits. The baby will be nourished when they otherwise might not, for instance, if they will not accept a bottle. And, the woman will gain the health benefits mentioned above.
Of course, if there was ever a situation in which a woman was forced to give up her breastmilk, the whole consent argument would collapse. Though it may be hard to imagine, if women were somehow farmed for their milk, held against their will and forced to express their breast milk that would then be taken away and given to someone else’s babies, this would very obviously not be in-keeping with vegan ideals (and it would be wholly unethical and illegal in more general terms). We have never heard of this occurring with human animals. Obviously, this is the fate of dairy cows across the world, which is why dairy milk is not vegan.
Are Food Products Made from Breast Milk Vegan?
If you felt a little squeamish about babies suckling on the breasts of women who were not their mother, how about this: breast milk ice cream? Well, that’s exactly what a restaurant in Covent Garden began serving a few years ago.
Whether you are utterly disgusted by the concept of consuming ice made from human breast milk or you’d be eager to lap it, would it be okay for vegans to consume? Assuming there are no additional ingredients that are made from (non-human) animals, and the women who donated the milk did so of their own free will, technically, we would argue that yes, breast milk ice cream would indeed be vegan friendly.
There could be an argument that the women in question are being exploited in such a scenario but they got paid and they were all adults who were capable of making their mind up so, from a vegan perspective, get stuck in! (Especially as it technically adds to the growing list of vegan-friendly alternatives to dairy ice cream!)
Breast Milk Conclusions: It’s Vegan
When it comes to breast milk, we have no qualms to say that it is definitely vegan in the case of a baby feeding from its own parent or even from another person, assuming all parties consent. The notion of consent is an important one and really indicates why veganism exists: animals cannot feasibly give their consent for us to take their milk or eggs or honey.
But adult humans can indeed give their consent for others to consume their breast milk… whether that is their own baby, someone else’s baby, or just someone in a London restaurant who fancies trying a bit of breast milk ice cream! Given that the number of options for vegan-friendly baby formula is almost non-existent in the UK, any vegan mothers who want their babies to be vegan too really should stick to the rule of thumb: breast is best.