Quick Summary: Many women are buying and selling breast milk online on unregulated websites. These websites provide access to breast milk for lower prices than milk banks so babies can have the benefits of breast milk such as immune system strengthening. A study shows that lack of regulation allows babies to be fed highly contaminated milk. However, major flaws with the study put the results under some suspicion. A better alternative is to prohibit the sale of breast milk but promote donation websites which will increase milk quality as long as the moms donating have undergone basic health screening and pump hygiene training.
“Breast is best” is all women hear from doctors after giving birth. There are major advantages to breastfeeding versus providing a baby with formula. Breast milk contains natural antibodies that can help increase a baby’s resistance to infection and further develop their immune system. It also decreases stomach issues such as diarrhea and can even raise I.Q.’s according to some studies. However, there are many parents that cannot breastfeed such as two fathers, woman who have had mastectomies, adoptive parents, and many others.
The internet has a solution, though it may be flawed. Websites such as Only The Breast are essentially a collection of classifieds for mammary fluids. Mothers post details about their lifestyles such as their diet and maybe even a photo or two of their cute bouncing baby. In comparison to breast milk banks which give priority to premature or immunocompromised babies, anyone can purchase milk from unregulated websites and will pay significantly less. Online, breast milk sells for $1-2 per ounce. The banks sell for an exorbitantly high price of $5/ounce which, for a 1 month old intake of 25 ounces per day, costs a parent about $150 a day for milk. Mothers who sell online enable parents to provide their children with the best nutrition possible while padding their own wallets. Since the crash in 2008, with payrolls are still down 1.9 million, mothers may need the income to support their families.
While this seems to be a win-win scenario, a recent study released on October 21st by epidemiologist Sarah Keim showed that someone else’s breast is definitely not best. Although it is legal to sell breast milk in the United States, official breast milk banks screen mothers and pasteurize the milk (which arguably destroys many of the milk’s benefits). The websites are unregulated which suggests that the milk could be contaminated. The study which analyzed 101 samples from popular breast milk websites showed high levels of bacteria such as staph and strep. 3 of the samples even contained salmonella which is never present in milk. 74% of the milk failed milk bank criteria, 12% of the samples took 3-6 days to arrive and 19% were shipped at room temperature. These contaminations could have occurred for many reasons – the mother’s skin could be contaminated, the breast pump may not be sterile, the milk could be old, or the mother is unknowingly infected with a virus or bacteria. The honor system on these websites makes breast milk sales essentially a game of Russian Roulette when shopping for milk; buyers have no way of knowing what product they are receiving. Is breast milk worth sickening a baby?
The answer seems to be a very simple “no.” However, there are many issues with the study performed by Keim. Firstly, the 101 samples were collected anonymously. Because most of the mothers selling on these websites (73%) are doing so for altruistic purposes, receiving an anonymous message tipped them off that the milk was not likely for a baby. The culture of these websites lends itself to discussion about lifestyle, their babies, and more. In fact, out of the 495 milk requests Keim sent out, 191 women never replied, 45 stopped responding after the first message, and 57 were eliminated because “they wanted to communicate verbally or inquired about an infant.” Therefore, the milk analyzed in the study was likely from the most careless mothers in the breast milk community. In addition, Keim suspects that some of the samples she received were not even human milk.
So what is the solution? There are some websites such as Human Milk 4 Human Babies which only run based on donated milk. This creates a culture of altruism and increases the quality of milk. An excellent parallel is blood donation in the 1950s. Blood banks at that time chose to provide monetary compensation for blood and found that their samples were 10 times more likely to be infected with diseases such as hepatitis. Because clearly profit reduces quality, the sale of breast milk on non-government regulated websites should be prohibited. Instead, donation websites should be given more attention. Still, donation sites need a screening method which checks mothers for diseases and educates them on pumping hygiene. Although it would not be a perfect system because even the most well intentioned mothers may make mistakes or be unaware of the bacterial/viral content of their milk, it would significantly reduce the risk for babies who are being fed milk from another’s breast.