Mother's milk is about as safe as food can be. Unless it's not from your mother. And surprisingly, a growing number of mothers are getting breast milk online from complete strangers and feeding it to their babies, a practice that a new study warns may be hazardous to the baby's health.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that breast milk from two popular sites was often contaminated with high levels of bacteria, including salmonella.
Researchers said 72% of the samples purchased online were infected with bacteria and 21% had potentially harmful viruses.
Some of the websites that make a market in mother's milk are reminiscent of inner-city blood banks, luring women who "over-produce" with promises of easy money. Onlythebreast.com charges $5 for a 15-day "premium" listing, telling women they can "get noticed and sell more breast milk with featured ads."
After the study was released, the site said it would stop facilitating person-to-person sales and instead help link donors to breast milk banks that have stricter safety standards.
The study echoes warnings from the Food and Drug Administration, which has warned for years that casual milk sharing can be dangerous.
"FDA recommends against feeding your baby breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet," the agency said in a 2010 advisory. "When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the Internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk. In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby."
For years, doctors have recommended that mothers breast-feed their infants whenever possible, based on research that finds breast milk protects babies against infections and other maladies but most doctors likely didn't imagine their patients would get their breast milk from the Internet, not exactly the world's safest neighborhood.
Some women are driven to seek additional milk because they can't produce enough milk on their own. Some are not able to nurse because of illness or a busy work and travel schedule. This has sparked a growth industry in websites that collect and sell or donate breast milk.
What to do
Parents who are considering using donated milk should first consult their pediatrician, the FDA advises.
The next step is to find a human milk bank that screens donors and takes steps to process and store the milk safely. A few states regulate these banks but there are no federal standards. The Human Milk Bank Association sets voluntary standards and has a nationwide directory of milk banks on its website.