Experts call for safe breast milk-sharing system

SEATTLE -- Local specialists seem to agree: breast milk is superior to formula. Yet when faced with parents who cannot breast feed their own children, local experts don't feel comfortable recommending breast milk from other women because they say there are no safe sources for donor milk.

Breast milk selling and sharing has become increasingly popular online in response to growing evidence that breast milk provides significant health benefits.

"There are a lot of things in breast milk that promote short- and long-term health," said Dr. Isabella Knox, a neonatal specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital, the University of Washington and Providence Medical Center. "It really programs the whole immune system. Formula-fed babies aren't as healthy of people."

Some women who are unable to breast feed themselves - due to a low milk supply, previous breast surgery or having adopted an infant - will choose to feed their babies another person's breast milk rather than commercial formula. Other women who produce more milk than their own babies can consume choose to sell or donate the excess.

But, there are risks to feeding a baby someone else's breast milk. A recent study showed 75 percent of breast milk sold through the popular site Only The Breast were infected with bacteria, including salmonella.

Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports using donor breast milk could lead to exposure to infectious diseases, including HIV; to chemical contaminants, such as some illegal drugs; and to a limited number of prescription drugs that might be in the human milk. If human milk is not handled and stored properly, the FDA reports it could become contaminated and unsafe to drink.

Due to these risks, the FDA recommends against feeding babies breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet.

Knox recommends all mothers breast feed if they can, but she does not suggests parents give their children donor milk.

"I am in favor of all babies getting breast milk but not contaminated breast milk," Knox said. "So far there is no system in this country to facilitate the safe sharing of breast milk. So we say don't do it. I would like to see the risks minimized."

There are 12 human milk banks in the United States that take voluntary steps to screen milk donors, and safely collect, process, handle, test, and store breast milk. Still, safety standards for such banks are not regulated by the FDA, and the majority of banked milk is used for high-risk infants and newborns in intensive care.

Mary Hudson, a lactation specialist at Swedish's Lytle Center, said she thinks fewer women would seek out donor breast milk if they received better support as new moms.

"If someone had helped them with breastfeeding this could have been avoided," she said. "I would love to see more people learn about breast feeding before delivering so they know where to go for support."

But when parents physically cannot breastfeed, Hudson still does not recommend milk sharing.

"We tell them to use formula," she said. "We can't encourage parents to buy breast milk. That would go against out professional society."

Still, Hudson recommended a blog post by the breast-milk-sharing network Eats On Feets that argues breast milk can be donated and shared in a safe, healthy way.

"Eats On Feets remains committed to the altruistic sharing of breast milk between families, and asserts that it can be done safely and ethically," the blog entry reads. "Until the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, the AAP, and social-policymakers are willing to commit to practical and feasible means of meeting the needs of their communities, there will remain a need for community-based milk sharing."

For women who are going to use donor breast milk, Knox urges them to follow guidelines developed by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.

"I think it's risky getting milk from anyone who's not you," she said. "Those risks are less if you know the person's history and how they handle the milk."