Moms are told again and again that breast milk is best. And when they have difficulty nursing their babies, some accept donations from other lactating mothers or even pay for breast milk. These unregulated exchanges appear to be on the increase, and they're putting babies at risk of serious infections, say researchers who bought and tested 101 milk samples from across the country.
Moms are told again and again that breast milk is best. And when they have difficulty nursing their babies, some accept donations from other lactating mothers or even pay for breast milk.
These unregulated exchanges appear to be on the increase, and they're putting babies at risk of serious infections, say researchers who bought and tested 101 milk samples from across the country.
About 75 percent of the samples contained bacteria, including coliforms, which are found in human and animal feces, the researchers report in a study published today in the journal Pediatrics. And about 20 percent of the samples tested positive for a respiratory virus that can be especially harmful to premature babies.
"There can be really extremely serious illness linked to this kind of contamination," said Sarah Keim, the study's lead author and a researcher at the Center for Biobehavioral Health at Nationwide Children's Hospital.
She and her colleagues compared the purchased milk with 20 unpasteurized samples from the OhioHealth Mothers' Milk Bank of Ohio. About one-third of the purchased-milk samples were contaminated with the bacteria, and 5 percent were positive for the respiratory virus.
The milk bank pasteurizes breast milk to remove contaminants before distributing it to babies in need, mostly those in neonatal intensive care.
The researchers spent an average of $1.47 an ounce on milk they bought online. It arrived in all sorts of ways - sometimes warm, sometimes leaking, sometimes in used formula bottles. The researchers did not look at samples of milk shared at no charge.
"We saw a lot of melted ice," Keim said.
Dr. Sheela R. Geraghty, the medical director of Cincinnati Children's Center for Breastfeeding Medicine and a study co-author, said the practice of sharing and selling milk raises many questions and concerns.
"I want babies to be breast fed ... I'm the biggest proponent in this city, but not in this way," Geraghty said. "We don't know the situations these moms and babies are getting into."
She said she also worries about women who continue to pump far beyond what they would normally produce, particularly those who are selling.
"We don't know what overpumping ... does to them. There may be bone loss or nutritional issues for them," she said.
Women who have too much milk naturally should contribute to organized milk banks to increase those supplies, Geraghty said.
Shell Walker, an Arizona midwife who runs the milk-sharing site Eats on Feets, said the research proves nothing about milk donated through groups such as hers. Eats on Feets doesn't involve money and stresses knowing your source as well as how the breast milk is collected, handled and stored.
Walker questioned the study design, pointing out that the researchers didn't order milk from women who wanted to talk to them on the phone or who asked questions about the baby they were feeding. Keim said that was because they did not want to fabricate a story and mislead sellers.
The Food and Drug Administration is considering regulating breast milk and has recommended against using shared or purchased breast milk.
A network of a dozen nonprofit milk banks in the U.S. consistently is in need of more donors, and the banks are pressed to provide for the sickest babies, said Diane Bates, nurse donor coordinator at the OhioHealth bank.
Banks screen donor mothers for diseases, including HIV, hepatitis and syphilis. The women are required to submit a lengthy health history and documentation from their doctors that they are healthy enough to donate.