Human milk is considered the optimal nutrition for infants, so much so that mothers are finding unconventional ways to provide it to their babies. A new study published in Pediatrics evaluated samples of breast milk bought on milk sharing websites and compared them with unpasteurized breast milk donated to milk banks. They found that a majority of the breast milk samples bought on the Internet were contaminated with one or more pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria. Genevra Pittman summarizes:
Researchers tested 101 milk samples they bought on milk sharing websites. They found that almost three quarters probably weren’t safe for babies, especially preemies.
Those sites have thousands of ads from people selling breast milk, often new mothers who make more than their baby needs. The milk typically sells for $1 or $2 per ounce.
“If you buy milk on the Internet, you have no idea what you’re getting,” said Sarah Keim. She led the study at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
“A buyer would just have no way of being able to know with the information they have whether that milk is safe.”
The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) has a dozen milk banks in the U.S. and Canada, accepting donations of breast milk from mothers who produced more than they need for their own newborns. JoNel Aleccia says HMBANA sets the standard:
Because the supply is scarce, the banked milk is limited to use in premature and medically fragile babies through medical prescriptions, said Kim Updegrove, president of HMBANA.
All donors are strictly screened and medically tested, and the milk is pasteurized to prevent contamination that could harm a baby, said Updegrove. That causes some slight loss of nutrition, she acknowledges, but reduces risk.
“I don’t think that the general public understands human milk as a bodily fluid that can relay dangerous bacteria and viruses,” she said.
Medications, drugs, and environmental toxins can also be passed through human milk. That’s why unscreened, unpasteurized breast milk from anonymous sources, offered for sale on the unregulated Internet, is potentially dangerous. The study’s conclusion:
Human milk purchased via the Internet exhibited high overall bacterial growth and frequent contamination with pathogenic bacteria, reflecting poor collection, storage, or shipping practices. Infants consuming this milk are at risk for negative outcomes, particularly if born preterm or are medically compromised. Increased use of lactation support services may begin to address the milk supply gap for women who want to feed their child human milk but cannot meet his or her needs.