Breastfeeding often ranks high on the list of challenges faced by new mothers. Among issues — difficulty producing enough milk to meet their baby’s demands. Some mothers wanting to give their children human milk instead of formula are turning to friends or family who donate breast milk, milk banks (which can be costly) and breast milk groups — often found on social media sites like Facebook and sometimes including a price tag — to supplement. But is it ethical? Is it safe?
Current Regulations (Or Lack Thereof)
To the latter question, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says no. According to its website, “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, this human milk may not have been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby. However, if using only human milk is important to you, the FDA recommends consulting with a healthcare provider to find a breast milk bank.
Breast milk banks usually screen donors, oversee the collection, process and storage of the breast milk to ensure its safety. The FDA doesn’t regulate breast milk banks, though some states have regulations around breast milk banks. This makes it vital for parents to know the practices followed by their source for procuring breast milk.
Milk Banks versus Casual Sharing
Proponents of sharing breast milk maintain it’s an age-old practice; one that was utilized long before the invention of formula. Diane Spatz, director of the lactation program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, recently told Good Morning America, “This has been occurring since the beginning of time. Hundreds of years ago when there wasn’t formula and if they [mothers] couldn’t breastfeed, they went to another friend, neighbor or family member and that person fed the baby.”
Andrea Tran, a registered nurse and lactation consultant (IBCLC), started one of the nation’s first milk banking programs at Boulder Community Foothills Hospitals, part of Boulder Community Health. “It was routinely used for premature babies, but we started a program where any baby that needed [human milk] for a medical reason could have access to it.”
Tran’s recommendation to parents asking about where to procure human milk — “I recommend going through milk banks certified through the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.” She follows this with, “I’m not going to lie — it’s insanely expensive.”
This could be why selling human milk has become lucrative for some lactating women. Per an article by CNBC, “… some offer to sell their oversupply for upwards of $3 an ounce. And outside of Facebook, so-called ‘underground’ websites have proliferated that take advantage of the growing demand for breast milk, with some selling it for up to $16 per ounce.”
For families unable to pay exorbitant prices, casual sharing of human milk, through friends or relatives, often comes into play. Tran has seen issues with this, as well. “Mothers, especially when they’re donating breast milk, are doing it out of the goodness of their heart and have the best of intentions.”
This doesn’t mean problems can’t occur. In one instance, Tran received a phone call from a woman donating milk to her friend. “She was a hepatitis carrier and got tested every so often, always testing negative. She hadn’t shared this with the mother because she didn’t think there was any risk.” Then, the woman’s tests converted to positive. Her next call to Tran presented the question, “Should I tell my friend to get her baby checked for hepatitis?”
“For this woman, clearly it was a lack of knowledge about the risk she was presenting to this baby,” Tran says. Some parents can ask their donors to get tested for things like hepatitis and HIV. Otherwise, turning to a milk bank, where such testing is required, is the best option.
If exclusively utilizing breast milk is important to you and your family, ensure your baby’s safety by consulting with your healthcare provider to discuss options.
Risks of Sharing Breast Milk — Sources
Good Morning America
CNBC: Breastfeeding moms use Facebook groups to sell and donate their milk, and experts have mixed views about it
The Vice: Got Milk: The Underground Online Marketplace for Human Breast Milk