“Breast is best”: that’s the advice routinely given to women about whether to breastfeed an infant or use formula. Not every woman is able to breastfeed, though, and some have been turning to websites via which you can buy, sell and donate breast milk. A new study published in the journal Pediatrics warns that milk purchased from such websites is often contaminated or tainted. Could new mothers, seeking to do the best for their newborns, be actually doing the reverse?
Breast milk contains many of the vitamins and minerals that an infant needs and is easily digested by a baby’s immature digestive system. An ever-growing body of research has shown that children who were breastfed longer have higher IQs; that nursing a child can lead to her or him having better behavior and help to prevent allergies and infections.
It is such benefits that women who find themselves unable to nurse are fearful of depriving their newborns of. Accordingly, they have been turning to the Internet, to sites like onlythebreast.com and eatsonfeets.org. In 2011, there were more than 13,000 postings for breast milk on the four leading milk-sharing websites.
As Sarah Keim, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Ohio State and a researcher at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and her colleagues have learned, breast milk purchased from those two websites was often contaminated with high levels of bacteria including salmonella. So much was found in some samples that a child could be sickened from it.
Keim and the other researchers collected 101 samples from milk-sharing sites and analyzed their bacterial content; they noted what each seller said about her own health and the methods used to handle and store the milk. They also tested samples of unpasteurized breast milk from screened donors who had donated to milk banks; 13 of these exist in the U.S. and Canada and follow voluntary guidelines established by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.
What Keim found was troubling, as the New York Times notes:
The researchers found that 64 percent of the samples from milk-sharing sites were contaminated with staph, 36 percent with strep, and almost three-quarters with other bacterial species. Three of the samples contained salmonella. Seventy-four percent of the samples would have failed milk bank criteria.
The unpasteurized milk bank samples were not entirely free of contamination either, but they were considerably cleaner than those from the online milk-sharers — 25 percent were contaminated with staph, 20 percent with strep, and 35 percent with other types of bacteria. Twenty-five percent of the milk bank samples contained no detectable bacteria at all, compared with 9 percent of the samples from milk-sharing sites.
Keim still gave her approval to the milk from the milk banks, noting that it is processed according to precise standards. Regarding the milk from the milk-sharing sites, Keim emphasized that salmonella “doesn’t belong in milk at all.” Nine percent of the samples from milk-sharing sites contained dangerous levels of staph while a small but significant few had “unusually high strep levels.”
You can only get milk from a milk bank for an infant with significant medical complications and with a prescription. Demand definitely exceeds supply: the milk banks distributed 2.15 million ounces in 2011, but the annual need is 9 million ounces.
Dr. Richard A. Polin, the director of neonatology and perinatology at Columbia University, says that the findings of the Pediatrics study (which he was not involved in) are worrisome: “This is a potential cause of disease. Even with a relative, it’s probably not a good idea to share.”
2,400 women have posted classifieds to sell milk on onlythebreast.com; more than 200 are seeking to purchase it. Reading the listings (“Stay at home mom with a big healthy 9 month old. Baby is beginning to wean and can pump plenty”), I’m reminded of many exchanges among mothers that I’ve read over the years. The milk-sharing sites are yet another way that modern technology is updating an ancient practice: it might seem odd to feed your child breast milk from some other woman, but, over the centuries, babies have been nursed by women (“wet nurses“) who were not their mothers.
Of course, the difference with the milk-sharing sites is that a mother procuring breast milk from one is taking what a stranger somewhere else says about her breast milk for granted. A mother donating or selling breast milk may simply wish to help another mother out but pumping, collecting and storing breast milk can be a bit of a messy business (as I recall from the 13 months that I nursed my son Charlie).
I’m certainly glad I nursed my son for as long as I did and not only for the nutritional benefits. Charlie took readily to nursing and he and I enjoyed the routine of feeding. He was not happy the first time he had to take a bottle (of breast milk — he outright refused formula), though he did (eventually) get used to it. My husband still likes to say that he knew Charlie would take his bottle when he made eye contact. The benefits of breast milk are clear but so is the importance of connecting with a newborn through the all-important activities of feeding and eating.
Every mother wants to give her newborn the best start in the world. If you’re giving a child breast milk, it pays to know exactly what’s in it because that’s what’s going into your child.
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