Recent research confirms that buying breast milk on the Internet via milk-sharing sites may not be safe. Although breast milk purchased from online sites may be free or as cheap as $1-$2 an ounce, it may carry significant risk for babies. Clearly the benefits of breast milk are vast; pediatricians and health experts recommend exclusive breast feeding until 6 months of age.
However, simply put, breast milk obtained from unknown (or known) individuals online may carry contamination from medications/drugs excreted in the breast milk, bacterial, or viral contamination. If a mother isn’t able to provide enough breast milk for her newborn or infant, parents must know that milk from online sellers can be contaminated at the time of collection and/or during transport, dangerous especially for babies born prematurely. If buying human breast milk parents should look for a certified milk bank.
Back in 2010 the FDA spoke out against the practice of buying breast milk online, warning parents of potential risks due to bacteria or viral contamination, exposure to chemicals, medications, and drugs. The research out today confirmed these hesitations: nearly 3/4 of the breast milk obtained by researchers online had bacterial contamination and 20% of the samples tested positive for a virus called CMV.
It should be noted that breast milk bacteria (or virus) counts aren’t deterministic for infection, meaning that just having bacteria in a breast milk sample doesn’t mean a baby will get sick from it. How old a baby is, the amount of bacteria in the sample, and the immune status of an infant all also play a part. However, there are reports of premature babies and babies with immune dysfunction becoming seriously ill from donated unpasteurized breast milk so caution is necessary.
To be very clear the breast milk obtained and studied in the new research was NOT from a milk bank. Human Milk Banking of North America (HMBANA) breast milk banks screen donors for infections (like HIV) and pasteurize the breast milk to ensure improved safety protection. The trouble for many families unable to make enough breast milk with using these banks can be very costly secondary to the handling, screening, and pasteurization. Milk can be several dollars an ounce!
The Internet purchased breast milk:
- Researchers in Ohio obtained over 100 samples of donated breast milk through an unnamed, online breast milk site for testing. Just Google “buy breast milk” for some examples of online breast milk-sharing sites. In the study researchers requested, paid for, and tested breast milk obtained online. They charted time in shipping, temperature upon arrival and tested milk for contamination with bacteria and viruses. In the study, 74% of the breast milk obtained online was found to have bacterial contamination on testing. Much of the bacteria found in the collected milk was gram-negative bacteria some gram-positive bacteria (“staph”) that tend to live on our skin. Three samples of breast milk collected were contaminated with salmonella bacteria. About 1 in 5 samples tested positive for CMV DNA.
- Bacterial contamination was more likely the longer it took for the breast milk to arrive. Although 1/2 of the samples arrived within 2 days, 12% required 3 to 6 days. Each additional transit day was associated with an increase in total bacteria count. Some sellers of the milk promoted their diet or exercise habits or lack of using medications. None of these claims was predictive of bacteria counts or presence of CMV (virus).
- Researchers compared the online-obtained breast milk samples to samples of breast milk obtained (prior to pasteurization) from a HMBANA-member milk bank. The samples found online were significantly more contaminated that those collected for a milk bank. Researchers theorized that because milk donated to a bank are screened and come from women screened and counseled on proper technique for collection, they may send in less contaminated milk overall secondary to improved hygienic handling practices.
- Researchers confirmed 2010 FDA concerns: “human milk purchased via the Internet exhibited high overall bacterial growth and frequent contamination with pathogenic bacteria, reflecting poor collection, storage, or shipping practices.”
This research really provides just some of the first information about Internet-purchased human breast milk. The far majority of moms do breastfeed their babies at the start (77%) but not all moms can produce enough breast milk for their infants. If you’re a mom having a challenge with milk supply or know a mom with challenge, the first step can always be talking with a lactation consultant for support in enhancing milk production. If a family wants to purchase supplemental breast milk this new research and the current FDA recommendations suggest it’s best to avoid unscreened online Internet donors. My recommendation is if you’re going to get breast milk from someone other than mom, only purchase breast milk from a HMBANA-member milk bank.
Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician who blogs at Seattle Mama Doc.