Breast milk at any cost?


We’ve been told breast is best, but at what cost? (Sarah L. Voisin/THE WASHINGTON POST)
October 22, 2013

An article published Monday in the journal Pediatrics reported that breast milk available for purchase on the Internet has been found to have dangerous bacteria in it — including salmonella. Should that surprise us? Probably not.

What should surprise us, or at least make us think for a moment, are the risks that parents are willing to take to get their babies breast milk.

Forget the mommy wars. Mothers today are going through the milk wars. Starting before our children were born, we were told that “Breast is Best” by doctors, nurses, lactation consultants and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

There is good science behind breastfeeding, and there are good support systems available to women who need them. But there has been a cultural shift toward uber-motherhood that has helped make breastfeeding a competitive sport.

That’s why I was not surprised when it was reported that the breast milk that parents are buying on the Internet — from strangers, not subject to any oversight — is often contaminated.

Have we gone too far in our efforts to push for breast milk at any cost?

In the struggle to make the most perfect world for our children, women lug breast pumps to work, spend endless exhausted hours hoping their baby is getting enough milk, fret over the contents of their freezers — or, if they can’t produce milk themselves, rely on other moms, or sites that sell other women’s breast milk.

Of course, women have been nursing other women’s babies forever. But have we really reached the point where we think it’s okay to google and buy breast milk?

There are safe milk banks from which breast milk from donors who have been screened is available. But there are very few such banks, and the milk is relatively difficult to obtain; most is earmarked for babies with major health issues.

Nancy Mallin, an international board certified lactation consultant with the Breastfeeding Center of Greater Washington, said that she has never advised parents to buy milk over the Internet, but has advised them to use milk from a certified milk bank. But there is a “woefully inadequate number of milk banks,” she said.

She encourages women to not give up. “Almost every woman in a U.S. hospital attempts to breastfeed their baby,” she said. “Then, a week later, those rates plummet.”

Nontheless, more women are breastfeeding now than in previous years. According to the Center for Disease Control report card, of the number of infants born in 2010, 49 percent were still breastfeeding at six months, up from 35 perent in 2000. And the number of babies breastfeeding at one year increased from 16 perent to 27 percent for that same period.

That’s good.

But what isn’t good is societal pressure that makes women feel they must breastfeed or irreparably harm their children.

I’ve watched many friends lose sleep and precious bonding time with their babies because they could not produce enough milk and felt feeding their babies formula was like feeding them arsenic. One finally quit trying when it was recommended she try a drug to boost her milk supply that wasn’t yet approved in the U.S. Another was depressed because she was spending more of her day with a breast pump and Mother’s Milk tea than she was snuggling her three-month-old.

Banks weren’t available options, and these women stopped short of turning to internet-ordered breast milk. But there were those who felt they had no other alternative, and now they are faced with the knowledge they could have made their babies very sick from doing what they felt was very right.

Amy Joyce is the editor and a writer for On Parenting.
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