A new trend in feeding infants breast milk, while well-intentioned, may actually be putting the babies at risk. Some new moms are using informally donated breast milk with the hope of providing their babies with the added health benefits, without doing all the research necessary to ward off health risks.
What is informal milk sharing?
Informal, or “mother-to-mother” milk sharing, occurs between friends, family members, or strangers online. The collection, handling, distribution, and use of this milk is unregulated. According to the Mayo Clinic, this method of milk sharing allows for some dangerous possibilities, including:
- Bacterial contamination that could cause infection
- Disease transmission
- Chemical contaminants, like medications or illegal drugs
- Cow’s milk or other fillers, since donors are paid for their product and might be motivated to artificially increase the amount they produce
In contrast, breast milk from formal milk banks that belong to the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), a voluntary professional association, is rigorously screened for impurities and medications. Donors are educated on proper and safe milk handling and shipping, and they must meet certain health standards. The milk itself is pasteurized prior to distribution. Donors are generally not paid, they participate on a strictly volunteer basis.
New mothers are surprisingly unconcerned about the safety of informally donated milk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) conducted an anonymous survey, and found that over 50 percent of the 650 mothers who responded said they didn’t have safety concerns about breast milk that was donated informally. Almost 80 percent of the women who accepted donated milk didn’t screen the donors because they “trusted them.”
The studies findings are alarming to experts. Mothers take so many precautions to keep their babies safe. Doctors advise them of what to eat and avoid during pregnancy and while nursing, and the lists of unsafe medications and other substances seems to grow by the day.
Why are women turning to informal milk sharing?
Many circumstances can lead to a new mom needing breast milk; they might have low production, health concerns or surgeries like a double mastectomy, need to take medicines that aren’t safe to pass to the baby, or be raising adoptive or foster babies.
However, milk from HMBANA-accredited milk banks can sometimes be hard to obtain. It’s distribution prioritizes hospital NICUs, or babies and mothers who have other special medical needs. Some of this donor milk may also be used for medical research or as a treatment for adult cancer patients. Fed and healthy babies are a last priority, and demand often outpaces supply.
Further complicating the issue is cost. According to What To Expect, “HMBANA banks typically charge between $3 and $5 an ounce, which goes toward the processing, handling and distribution of the milk.” That can really add up. “The average newborn takes in between 2 to 3 ounces of milk per day for every pound she weighs — which means if you have a 10-pound baby, you’ll be spending between $60 and $150 per day.” Insurance and the milk banks themselves can sometimes help cover those costs.
Getting milk from a friend of a friend in a Facebook group might prove to be cheaper and easier. However, most experts and medical organizations, such as the AAP, La Leche League, and FDA, warn against using informally donated milk for safety and health reasons. As much as women trust the friends and loved ones they receive donated milk from, the only true way to guarantee the safety of donor breast milk is to go through a formal milk bank.
Doctors say all of these precautions are just as important as keeping your physician in the loop on how your baby is being fed. Ruth Milanaik, a physician at Cohen Children’s Medical Center/Northwell Health in New York, offers in the AAP study, “In addition to educating patients, physicians must underscore the importance of discussing these habits with medical professionals so that we have the necessary information to make accurate diagnoses should a medical need arise.” Parents should always inform their baby’s pediatrician about any changes in nutrition or feeding.
Bottom line: All new moms want the best for their babies. The benefits of breast milk are well documented, but nothing is more important that the health and safety of our kids.