Doctors Warn Unscreened Breast Milk Poses Danger For Babies

Many mothers want nothing more than to breastfeed their babies. In fact, 26.8% of survey respondents said in 2015 that they express breast milk for their infants anywhere from five to 15 times per week. When a biological mom is unable to supply breast milk for her own baby, donor milk is often a great alternative. It provides vital nutrients and helps strengthen the child’s immune system.

However, it can be difficult to secure donor milk through a milk bank, due to high demand or specific qualifications, and so some parents are taking more drastic measures: they’re getting their milk from other mothers they know or even off the internet. Now, doctors are speaking out about the dangers that unscreened breast milk poses for infants.

Typically, donor milk is distributed through milk banks that are run by hospital units. For particularly vulnerable or premature infants, it’s critical they receive milk from these banks. Since breast milk can protect preemies against the onset of serious illnesses, it’s important for these babies to consume natural breast milk instead of formula.

When a mother can’t keep up with the supply of milk her child needs, milk banks can offer a much-needed solution. Chicago’s first milk bank first opened in March of 2016, much to the joy of many frustrated, exhausted mothers and sick babies. But due to the rise in milk bank popularity, mothers aren’t always able to secure donor breast milk. Since this donor milk is usually reserved for at-risk babies, mothers who simply can’t produce breast milk for their otherwise healthy infants are often left in the lurch. While some mothers are turning to their friends for help, others are seeking out breast milk online.

Both options pose a serious danger to infants. Donor milk needs to be pasteurized in order to be safe for consumption. While donor banks screen and pasteurize the milk before distributing it, breast milk obtained from friends or strangers can contain harmful contaminants that can make babies sick.

According to the CDC, one in six Americans becomes ill after consuming contaminated foods or beverages every year. Dr. Steven Abrams of the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin notes that “milk banks are tightly regulated and use one of several well-established and proven methods of pasteurization to remove virtually all risks of transmitting infections.”

Unpasteurized and unscreened donor milk can put babies at risk for bacterial or viral contamination, as well as exposure to drugs, medications, or other potentially harmful substances.

And while it is possible to pasteurize milk using home methods, it’s not recommended. In fact, many physicians consider it to be an unsafe practice. The Holder pasteurization method is complicated to perform correctly — and if it’s done incorrectly, most mothers wouldn’t even know definitively until their child becomes sick.

Getting milk from internet sources poses an even greater risk: not only could it be contaminated, but what you’re getting might not even be breast milk. In fact, Dr. Valerie Flaherman, nursery director at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, says that even formula is preferable to breast milk sourced online.

“Buying milk from the internet and feeding it to babies is hazardous and risks giving the infant an infection, either an infection directly transmitted from an infected donor or an infection that occurs because milk storage conditions were poor.” She pointed out that, at the very least, “formula is prepared and stored according to FDA guidelines and is a much safer choice than casually shared breast milk.”

These concerns have prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to release an official policy statement on donor milk, advising parents to avoid human milk sharing. While these mothers must all agree that “breast is best,” that adage should not be taken to the extreme for the sake of these vulnerable children.