It can provide an extra source of money for mothers who produce an over-abundance of milk, and it provides a service for those who cannot breast feed.
ABC News reports:
“[One woman was asked] if pumping her milk and putting it in the mail didn't ‘seem weird’ to her. ‘It definitely did seem weird to me but I knew I was helping a family in need,’ she replied. ‘Their child wasn't responding well to formula, was having a lot of tummy aches and spit-ups. So I figured if I was able to help this child with breast milk because their mother wasn't able to, then I might as well help them out.’”
Breast milk is turning into a hot commodity online, fueled by growing acknowledgement that natural mother's milk is the best food for babies. Nursing women are now earning up to $1,200 a month in extra income from selling their extra milk to other families, many of whom are pairing up online via Craigslist and other classified sites.
It's a novel idea that actually dates back to ancient times, when wet nurses (women who breastfeed babies other than their own) were used for a variety of purposes -- including in some cases by members of the aristocracy, who would have their children wet nursed so they could conceive again quickly. It was actually common among poor women in the ancient world to supplement their income by wet nursing.
Nowadays, most women looking to purchase breast milk online are doing so because they cannot produce enough of their own, or perhaps are taking drugs that make their own breast milk unusable. Perhaps they have adopted an infant and would like to provide breast milk but are physically unable. Theoretically, this is a far superior option to using infant formula, but there are some caveats and risks that need to be considered.
Is Buying Breast Milk Online a Good Idea?
Breast milk is a near perfect food that is unquestionably the best nourishment you can provide for your baby. But it does have one downfall: its nutritional value is influenced by the mother's diet -- and its safety is also dependent on the mother's health.
For instance, certain infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C may be transmitted through breast milk, as can chemical contaminants and some illegal and prescription drugs. If a woman is eating a vegan diet, there are also potential risks of vitamin deficiencies in the milk.
As with all foods, if the milk is not handled and stored properly, it also risks spoilage or contamination that could sicken a young child.
So to answer the question, is buying breast milk online a good idea, it depends. If you can be confidently certain that the milk is pure. But buying milk from a stranger who may not have been screened for disease or drug use, and who you have no idea how they are handling the milk (or whether the breast pump they are using is sterile) is a serious risk to consider when making this choice.
However, if you choose to use this route to obtain breast milk, you should get a personal health history of the donor, and then have the breast milk tested for hepatitis C and HIV.
An alternative to help ensure breast milk safety would be to have the donor tested for infectious diseases, which is what most state-run human milk banks require. For instance, The Mothers' Milk Bank of Ohio requires that all donors be screened for HIV, HTLV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and syphilis. However, this only ensures safety of the milk through the test date, and does not guarantee against any newly contracted infections. However, the risk is very low if they test negative initially.
"Health care providers and researchers have expressed concern that the casual exchange of human milk could be a potential route of transmission for drugs and viruses.
CEO, National Commission on Donor Milk Banking and PhD candidate Lois Arnold, MPH, IBCLC states: "Because some individuals may have a viral or bacterial infection but remain asymptomatic (without symptoms) they may never know they are infecting another party. For this reason, 'knowing someone well' would be inadequate protection against disease transmission because the carrier is unaware she is infected.""
Warning about Human Milk Banks: The Milk is Pasteurized
Human milk banks are available across the United States, with varying safety standards at each. Some states require set safety standards, but most of the banks use voluntary safety guidelines on screening donors and collecting, processing, handling, testing and storing milk.
Your state's department of health can give you information about milk banks in your area, and you can also check the Human Milk Banking Association of North America for human milk banks in this region (HMBANA issues voluntary safety guidelines for member banks).
You might be wondering why I don't recommend using this service. This is because there is a major downside to using breast milk from human milk banks: the milk has been pasteurized and this is even a more serious issue for feeding infants, as many of the essential immune-building elements will be decimated in the pasteurization process and your infant will fail to receive this crucial support when they need it the most.
If you're familiar with the differences between pasteurized cow's milk and raw cow's milk, it is precisely the same issue with breast milk. Pasteurization destroys valuable enzymes, vitamins and probiotics, which means pasteurized breast milk is likely an entirely different food from breast milk that is not pasteurized. Remember, breast milk is meant to be eaten straight from the breast, and there is research showing that pasteurization compromises the nutritional value of breast milk.
- A study in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition found that "Infants fed untreated own mother's milk grew more rapidly than those fed pasteurized pooled preterm milk and had higher serum alkaline phosphatase and lower phosphorus values."
- A separate study in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition noted:
"A study was done to compare feeding pooled pasteurized breast milk and untreated own mother's milk to very low birth weight babies. There was a significantly more rapid weight gain both in terms of regaining birth weight and, from this point, to reaching a weight of 1,800 g when using untreated own mother's milk
… It is suggested from our data that slower weight gain in the group receiving the pooled pasteurized milk could be due to the pasteurization, which probably destroys heat-labile milk lipase."
So while human milk banks are a fantastic idea, the sad reality is that milk obtained from them -- assuming it is pasteurized, as is standard process at most milk banks -- is far inferior to breast milk that is unpasteurized. An alternative option to obtain unpasteurized breast milk straight from a donor may be to work with a physician or pediatrician who will work with you to find a safe milk donor, and will be involved in the screening process.
"A mother who is unable to use a human milk bank is encouraged to use the services of a doctor who is knowledgeable about managing human milk donations. The doctor will order the necessary testing for the donor mother, and make sure that the mothers involved in the donation are given the correct management information about human milk expression, storage and transportation."
Before You Seek Donor Milk …
There are certain medical conditions that can prevent a woman from breastfeeding, however the majority of women are able to produce adequate supplies of milk and breastfeed successfully. Often, those who believe they cannot may be misinformed, and believe they don't have enough milk; this is a common misperception. However, in the vast majority of circumstances, all women have enough milk to breastfeed. The more the baby nurses, the more milk you will produce! Mom needs to drink plenty of water and seek optimal nutrition while nursing. The begining weeks and months are critical in the process.
As the La Leche League states:
"If a mother is seeking donated milk the first question to consider is whether or not she can supply her own milk. Some mothers need to know that they will be able to breastfeed their babies in less than ideal or special circumstances.
For example, many mothers have been able to provide their own milk for their premature or ill babies. Many mothers also continue to breastfeed after returning to work and, in most cases, provide sufficient milk.
In other cases, because of lack of knowledge or a poor start, a mother may be in a situation where her body is not producing enough milk. Increasing frequency of nursing, making sure the baby is latched on correctly, and offering both breasts at each feeding are some of the proven techniques that help most nursing mothers increase their supply."
Ideally, you'll want to strive to breastfeed your baby exclusively for the first 6 months, at which point you can begin to supplement with solid foods. (But remember, even breastfeeding for as little as one month can impart great health benefits for both you and your baby.)
You should begin nursing as soon after birth as possible, as your baby's sucking instinct will be very strong at that time, giving you the best chance of success. In the beginning, the milk that is produced is called colostrum -- a thick, golden-yellow fluid that is very gentle for your baby's stomach and full of beneficial antibodies.
As your baby continues to nurse, your milk will gradually change in color and consistency from thick and yellow, to thinner with a bluish-white hue. Newborns need to nurse at least once every two hours, for about 15 minutes or so on each side, but most do not adhere to any kind of strict schedule and feedings can vary in length. It is this frequent nursing that stimulates your breasts to produce increasing amounts of milk to keep up with demand.
There's virtually no need to fret should your baby lose a little weight during the first week or so. This is normal, and she should have regained the weight by about two weeks of age.
You may even want to begin planning for successful breastfeeding before your baby is even born. One consideration to take into account is that epidurals may have a detrimental effect. One 2007 study discovered that women who receive epidural anesthesia during childbirth with the narcotic fentanyl may have trouble breastfeeding.
Whether you want to prepare beforehand, or find you're having trouble breastfeeding once your baby is born, Le Leche League is a terrific resource to contact for help.
A Quick Word about Infant Formula
That breast milk is the best source of nutrition for newborns is one of the most clear-cut, non-debatable topics in health care, and you can find out about many of the benefits here. However, if for whatever reason you're unable to breastfeed or find a safe source of breast milk, please steer clear of commercial infant formulas as much as possible and definitely avoid all soy infant formula, as it is loaded with toxic elements like high doses of manganese and aluminum.
It is among the worst commercial foods you could give your baby. It is likely that at some point in the future when all the health complications are fully appreciated, it will be removed from the market and banned.
The next best alternative to breast milk is to make a healthy homemade infant formula. There may be others, but here is one recipe for homemade formula created by the Weston Price Foundation, which I believe is sound.