— When a blood clot in her brain prevented Jesi Paschen from
nursing her second daughter, she turned to what she believed
was the next best thing: breast milk from another mother.
27-year-old mom wanted newborn Radlee, now 7 months, to glean
the same benefits as sister Hinlee, 2½, including all the
nutrition, antibodies and other disease-fighting properties
found in human milk. So Paschen, like growing numbers of
mothers who can’t nurse their own children, turned to online
sources, including the Facebook site for the Washington state
chapter of Human Milk for Human Babies, or HM4HB.
believe that breast milk is best for my child," said
Paschen, who still takes medication that could be harmful if
transmitted to the baby.
study by researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in
Columbus, Ohio, is raising new doubts about the safety of
milk-sharing, including breast milk bought and sold on the
Internet through various sites.
analysis of more than 100 samples purchased in 2012 found that
more than 10 percent of the human milk for sale had been mixed
with cow’s milk — and at high enough levels to indicate
the adulteration was intentional.
was surprised that it was that many samples," said Sarah
Keim, principal researcher at Nationwide Children’s.
"Even a small amount of cow’s milk could be harmful to
a baby with cow’s milk allergies."
suggested that sellers may have been adding the cow’s milk
to the human milk to boost volume — and income. Breast milk
typically sells for about $3 an ounce. Keim wasn’t able to
test donated milk because of confidentiality issues.
results follow a 2013 study by Keim and her colleagues that
reported that nearly 75 percent of the samples for sale
through the site OnlyTheBreast.com were contaminated with
(OTB) officials said in a statement they urge sellers to
follow best practices for expressing, handling and storing
human milk, including steps for shipping, freezing and
peer-to-peer screening of donors.
believe most OTB donors are honest, abiding by OTB terms and
are simply looking to provide safe milk for babies in
need," the statement said.
said her results show that women seeking breast milk can’t
always trust the providers.
when women feel like they’re doing a thorough job of
choosing the best milk provider, you don’t know," she
said. "People aren’t often very open about their
lifestyle or their health behaviors."
families are turning to online sources for breast milk, which
are far different from the network of organized milk banks
that typically provide screened and pasteurized donor milk to
hospital neonatal units and via prescription to babies with
there were about 13,000 postings to the top four sites that
broker milk sales and donations, Keim said. By last year, that
number had grown to 55,000.
Seattle and Washington state, posts to such sites are popular,
too. There are nearly 5,000 "likes" for the
Washington HM4HB Facebook page. Recently several classified
ads on OnlyTheBreast.com offered milk for sale from area
sweet cream supplier look(ing) for a buyer, $15/5oz bag,"
reads one entry by a seller known as "Sparks." She
did not reply to requests for comment.
course, women have been milk-sharing for millennia, experts
note. Before the advent of manufactured infant formulas,
wet-nursing was the only way to make sure babies were fed if
their mothers couldn’t produce, noted Dr. Isabella Knox, a
neonatologist and breast-feeding expert with Seattle Children’s.
am a proponent of milk-sharing," Knox said. "But I
would not buy it on the Internet from a stranger. I think it’s
proper screening, there’s no way to know whether the
breast-milk supplier has diseases such as HIV or tuberculosis
or whether she’s taken prescription or illicit drugs.
percent of the milk samples in Keim’s previous study were
positive for cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which can cause serious
illness in sick or premature babies, often the target market
for milk donations and sales. More than 20 percent of requests
for milk online are for babies with health problems.
troubles donors such as Mariesa Rice, 27, of Whidbey Island,
Wash., who found herself with ample supplies of milk after the
birth of her son, Brian, two months ago. She has about 150
ounces of milk stored in her freezer and decided to offer it
on the HM4HB site to help other new moms.
didn’t just want to throw it all away," she said.
"It was a lot of hard work to pump it and freeze it, and
breast milk seems like a hot commodity right now."
said she’s healthy, avoids nicotine and alcohol and is
scrupulous about cleanliness. She wouldn’t offer milk that
she wouldn’t feed her own baby, she said, but she knows that’s
just her word.
would have to be very confident in me," she said.
"It’s another one of those honesty and trust things
that they’re going to trust that it’s OK."
not enough for health experts such as the federal Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Academy of
Pediatrics (AAP), which frown on the process, advising women
to never use milk bought or donated from strangers. Tamara
Wescott, a lactation specialist at Swedish Medical Center,
typically directs women with the greatest need to sites such
as the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank in Portland, which provides
breast milk to babies by prescription.
have to ensure that babies are given milk that has been
assessed and treated," Wescott said. "I cannot
advocate for passing milk between mothers without having it
being professionally evaluated."
question, breast milk is best for babies, Knox said. But if it’s
a choice between unscreened breast milk from strangers or
formula, she’d choose formula.
is not the devil when you need it," she said.
she added, if mothers who need milk seek donors they know —
and the women are willing to provide prenatal screening
records — that may be a different story.
Paschen, it is important to know the women who provide milk
for her baby. She gets some milk for Radlee from two local
women who are regular donors and insists on meeting other
women before she accepts their supplies. And she has asked
donors to sign a form that attests that they’re HIV-free,
monogamous, free of sexually transmitted diseases, and that
they don’t smoke or use drugs.
not a formal medical record, but Paschen said she feels
comfortable that her donors are safe. These are women she sees
every week, she said.
I just say that breast milk is what’s best for my child and
if I just generally think about it that way, I’m perfectly
OK with it," she said.