Is Your Baby Getting Safe Breast Milk?

Sharing breast milk has become easier and more popular than ever before. But is it safe for you and for your baby?

baby drinking bottle Alexandra Grablewski

The practice of sharing breast milk is not a new thing. Long before there were bottles and formula, there were wet nurses and milk sharing -- as far back at 2000 B.C.

Modern times and technology, however, have taken the concept of sharing breast milk outside of small social circles where moms knew exactly who was sup-plying their babies' milk. The Internet has opened up the option of sharing milk with or selling it to other women across the country, and even across the globe. With that comes risk, according to researchers. A recent study published in Pediatrics shows that breast milk bought and sold online has a high likeli-hood of contamination.

The report found that of 101 samples, nearly 75 percent had some form of bacterial contamination: 64 percent carried staph, 44 percent had coliform bacteria like E. coli and 36 percent carried strep. Some samples even contained salmonella.

"Infants consuming this milk are at risk for negative outcomes, particularly if [they are] born preterm or are medically compromised," the study authors wrote.

Sarah Keim, Ph.D., a lead researcher on the study and a principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, said that in 2011 she found nearly 13,000 postings of breast milk for sale online. After testing a sampling of those, she says the findings speak for themselves.

"I think it's pretty clear that obtaining milk this way and feeding it to your baby is not a recommended practice, due to the potential for infectious disease, some of which could be serious," Dr. Keim says. "It could also be a minor illness, but the risks seem to outweigh the benefits in this particular case. Even though we know that breastfeeding is the best thing for babies and breast milk has many, many confirmed benefits for babies, in this case the risks just make it not worth it."

Dr. Keim points out that, despite the best efforts of many milk-sharing websites, a woman who purchases milk online just doesn't know enough about the woman who is providing it. "In some ways, it's just like anything on the Internet. You don't know who's on the other end of that e-mail or that advertisement. It may be one thing if you're buying baseball cards or clothing on eBay or something like that, but this is the health of your baby, so it's just important to be extra cautious," she says.

    What About Breast Milk Banks?

    In the study, researchers compared the shared milk with unpasteurized donor milk from screened donors at nonprofit milk banks, which showed some signs of contamination, but not nearly at the scale of the informally shared milk. The screened samples came from member banks of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), a nonprofit organization that sets the standards for and operates milk banks in North America. HMBANA has helped facilitate the increase in milk banks and milk bank awareness since 1985, when the organization began. HMBANA represents 14 nonprofit milk banks in the United States and three in Canada, all of which operate under strict standards to screen donors, pasteurize, and test milk.

    Because of that, Dr. Keim says, the risks addressed in the study don't really apply to HMBANA milk banks. But at the same time, babies who are healthy generally aren't the recipients of HMBANA milk: Premature and sick babies get priority when it comes to milk from milk banks. And while HMBANA milk banks gave out about 3 million ounces of breast milk last year, nearly 9 million are needed if human milk were to be fed to all babies under 1,500 grams, or 3 1/2 pounds.

    "Donated human milk is a scarce resource," says HMBANA president Kim Updegrove. "Therefore, there's some gatekeeping, as with any donated tissue."

    HMBANA works to ensure that the babies who need the milk most get it. The organization is also working to encourage more healthy nursing mothers to donate milk. The process is simple: Moms simply contact the milk bank closest to them to begin the screening process. If a mom is not close to a milk bank, she can ship her milk at no cost to herself.

    If there's an increase in supply, HMBANA will be better equipped to meet the full demand for milk. Only then, Updegrove says, will the milk banks be able to meet demands of healthier babies whose moms are struggling to nurse.

    "If every lactating healthy mother knew to call a nonprofit milk bank today and go through the very simple screening process at no expense to herself, and if she even donated 100 ounces of milk, then we would have enough milk to take care of not just those fragile infants but those bigger infants who are healthy and full-term, whose parents are just struggling, at least initially, to provide enough milk," Updegrove says. "We'd be able to provide that for them."

      How Do You Get Safe Breast Milk?

      Until the banks have enough donated breast milk to meet demand, women who struggle to nurse are left with the same question: How do you ensure that your baby is getting safe milk? Although the Food and Drug Administration, American Academy of Pediatrics and La Leche League all herald the benefits of breast milk, they do not recommend casual sharing of milk.

      Diana West, director of media relations for La Leche League International and an international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC), says that many women who are struggling to nurse their child would benefit from meeting with a lactation consultant.

      "Some women don't realize that they can increase their milk production," West says. "There's lots of ways to do it, depending on the underlying problem." West has co-authored a number of books, including The Womanly Art of Breast-feeding, 8th edition, The Breastfeeding Mother's Guide to Making More Milk and Breastfeeding after Breast and Nipple Procedures, all of which encourage women to nurse and share information on how to breastfeed more easily.

      West says that every baby deserves human milk. "It's not even that breast is best. Breast is normal," she says. "This is what babies are biologically designed to have."

        How to Store Breast Milk

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