In The Dangers of the Milk Sharing Economy, the author points out that sometimes another mother’s breastmilk might not be safe for our babies based upon her 2013 study. Informal milk sharing has exploded in the past 5 years or so. This has opened the door to many problems. We use to share our breastmilk all the time. But it was family member to family member, friend to friend, or friend of a friend to a friend of a friend. Some type of personal connection. Now we have many sites where you can exchange breastmilk with others. Some for free, some for sale. This opens up informal milk sharing to many risks that were not as large of a concern in the past.
I agree that internet informal milk sharing has added risks to possible health risks. I also want to add a disclaimer. When I am talking about milk sharing, I am talking about providing donated breastmilk to a healthy, full term, baby. Got it? Babies with compromised health for whatever reason are more open to risks than healthy, term babies. OK?
However, I feel Dr. Keim and others have greatly exaggerated the dangers of informal milk sharing. Do you know how she collected the breastmilk samples from her study? She got them from who knows who, because she was only allowed to have email contact, and not share any personal information. The researchers then PAIDED for her breastmilk samples by Paypal. They then had the samples sent to a PO box. The researchers purchased amounts of less than 10 oz from each seller.
Let’s break this down. By not allowing any personal contact with her donors she has already eliminated most of the ethical donors. Why? Because when you are sharing your precious, hard-earned breastmilk, you want to know who is drinking it! It feels good to know exactly who is benefiting from your generosity. Personal contact increases your ethical responsibility.
The amount of breastmilk requested also makes this situation suspect. What mother needs less than 10 oz of breastmilk? For what? This sounds more like some weird use, making ice cream? Who knows, but usually babies need more breastmilk than this and in an ongoing way.
There is also the shipping. Again, what mother would ship her breastmilk to a PO Box with and, as stated in the research, “Encouraged to choose whichever commercial shipper and service, ice, and packing materials they believed to be appropriate.”? The researches got breastmilk that was usually defrosted, and sometimes in leaky ziplock bags. Not a good start for testing for bacteria. I am no scientist but I bet they found lots of bacteria, and they did!
They also compared bacteria levels to bacteria levels in banked human milk which has been screened for bacteria growth. Of course, the informal donor milk will have more bacteria! I would have liked to seen this compared to non-screened and pasteurized breastmilk.
Finally, guess what? Of Dr. Keim 102 samples, 11 contained bovine DNA. Shocker! When you pay for breastmilk in such small qualtities which is being sent to a PO Box, the receiver is clearer up to no good. Why not send them some diluted breastmilk? When you ask for trouble, you usually get it.
Informed consent is my personal goal for my families. That they understand the risks and benefits of the choices that they are making. Sensationalizing, using scare tactics, and not presenting the true facts, undermines the work that Ms. Keim and others have done. They have shown us how not to milk share which is very valuable.
To make informal milk sharing as safe as possible:
Have personal contact with your donor. Tell your story, let her tell hers. I believe this alone is huge. We want the donor mother to be invested in your baby’s well being. What other mother wants to put another baby at risk? For what benefit?
If possible, get a health certificate from the donor mother. Mothers know that we will be nervous about this. Don’t be afraid to ask for one, or at the very least, ask about HIV, Hep B and C, syphilis, and her drug use and drinking history. If she is cagey, insulted, walk away.
Keep it fresh! Don’t have your donor milk for your baby shipped to a PO Box! Set up good ways to make sure the breastmilk stays cool or frozen during transit.
Don’t pay for the breastmilk. I wish we lived in a society where mothers could be compensated for their liquid gold, but right now there is not a system in place, besides altruism, that is helping ensure that the breastmilk is not being watered down, spoiled, or having cow milk added. When you add profit, you add risk. Pay for shipping if needed, or maybe pumping supplies, but I worry about cash=breastmilk. The sites that seem to be most reputable are Milk Share, Eats on Feets, and Human Milk 4 Human Babies. For more info on informal human milk sharing, please visit kellymom.
Life is full of risks. There are many risks involved with formula feeding. How come we aren’t talk about those? Dangerous bacteria, too much of certain additives, the risks of overfeeding and future obesity. These are real. However, many families choose to formula feed despite these risks. Many mothers end up using formula because they don’t have enough of their own breastmilk. We need to feed the babies. But there are real risks involved. There are also risks to using informal donor breastmilk. Let’s just be clear as to what they really are.