Indiana mothers who buy breast milk from donors are taking issue with a study released this week that indicates buying breast milk online is unsafe because the milk is often contaminated and contained levels of bacteria high enough to make babies sick.
There are a variety of reasons why mothers might turn to donated milk–adoptions, breast reduction or difficulty nursing.
Karen Kachelmeyer was intent on feeding her baby breast milk for at least a year, but she ran into one problem after another, after another.
“We struggled for the first seven months of her life, trying to feed, bad latch, pain, bleeding for seven months,” she says.
So Kachelmeyer posted on a milk sharing website and got connected to Amber Niebrugge.
“She had posted looking for a Bloomington mom and I said you know I am in Martinsville. I am willing to drive to Indy, Bloomington. However far I need to to get it,” Kachelmeyer says.
Niebrugge has provided milk to seven families and in some cases mothers drive for hours to get what is commonly referred to as liquid gold. She doesn’t charge anything – she just asks the mothers to bring her storage bags.
“Once I started donating it felt really good,” Niebrugge says. “And now I just do it and it is so easy to say, “of yea, absolutely take this milk.”
Breast Milk Often Considered ‘Liquid Gold’
The benefits of breast milk are well documented: immunity against disease, food allergies, skin conditions. Breastfeeding might make your baby smarter, lower her risk of SIDS and protect her from obesity.
But faced with two options: milk from someone other than the mother, or formula, Allison Oeding, registered dietitian and breast feeding coordinator, says formula would be the better option.
“Informal breast milk sharing puts that baby at medical risk,” Oeding says. “There’s bacteria in that breast milk. HIV and Tuberculosis can be transmitted to the baby through breast milk as well as illicit drugs, prescription medicine. So there’s really no way to know whether that baby is getting safe milk or not.”
There’s also no way to know whether the baby is even getting breast milk. It could be cow’s milk.
The study published this week in the journal Pediatrics found breast milk sold online was often contaminated because of problems with the way the milk was collected, stored or shipped.
One way to avoid contamination is to go through milk banks. They typically screen potential donors, evaluate the women for medical risk factors and give them a blood test. Then they pasteurize the milk and send it off to an independent lab for testing before providing it to babies.
Nearly three quarters of the samples taken for the Pediatrics study would have failed the standards established at milk banks, but the available supply is very limited.
“We really operate on a medical needs basis,” Carissa Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Indiana Mother’s Milk Bank, says. “If a baby is sick, if a baby can’t tolerate formula, if a mother can’t make milk – those are scenarios where we would provide milk to a child or baby.”
But there are some obstacles to buying milk from a milk bank.
Kachelmeyer says before she ever posted an ad online looking for milk she did reach out to a milk bank but she couldn’t afford it. At the time her baby Paige was drinking about 24 ounces a day and at $7 an ounce it would have cost more than $5,000 a month just for her milk.
“She is over a year now,” she says. “Breast milk the whole way and I never would have been able to do it without the donor milk.”
Key Differences Between Purchased, Donated Milk
Kachelmeyer says there are a couple key things that separate her situation from the cases highlighted in the study. She doesn’t pay for milk and she was able to build a relationship with Niebrugge, the donor mother.
“I was able to come here,” Kachelmeyer says as she sits in Niebrugge’s kitchen. “See her baby, see that her baby was healthy. I would have been able to smell if there was a lot of cigarette smoke, you can smell if there is a lot of alcohol. She friended me on Facebook.”
Niebrugge says even though she doesn’t agree with everything in the study, she is glad the article came out.
“I know milk sharing is kind of a totally new thing that people are learning about,” she says. “I feel like it’s going to shed light on it. At first I was pretty heartbroken about it because I work really hard and a lot of people don’t understand what goes into it. I get up in the middle of the night even after my son has eaten to pump. I pump while I’m at work and I am doing all of this pumping and it’s not for my son.”