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Why the study about selling breast milk shouldn’t scare you

A scary report shows that when you buy breast milk online, you might not be getting what you pay for. But is there more to the story?

A recently released study shows that around 10 percent of the breast milk the researchers bought online contains cow’s milk, which means the sellers they bought from are likely using regular milk or infant formula to boost the volume of what they sell. Sarah Keim, who is a principal investigator at the Center for Biobehavioral Health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, led the study, and she says that purchasing breast milk online is too risky, so you’d better not even think about doing it.

However, the study used the term “milk sharing” to describe buying and selling of breast milk, but proponents of breast milk donation are quick to point out that this doesn’t always mean money changes hands. Typically milk-sharing sites specialize in connecting mothers in need with suitable donors, and no money is exchanged. “Purchasing breast milk from private sellers online is, in general, not a safe practice,” says Bekki Hill, CLC, founder of Modern Milksharing. “There is monetary incentive to lie about health status, diet, recreational drug use and even what is in these bags that are sold as human milk. There is no protection or recourse for families who purchase breast milk in this way.”

However, milk donation is a different ballgame. “Human milk given from a mom to another baby, at no cost, is far less risky,” she explains. “There is no incentive to lie about their health. No financial gain to diluting the milk. The vast majority of families who acquire milk online meet their donors first. And many of these donors provide notes from their doctors or copies of prenatal labs, showing that they are free from diseases and healthy to donate milk.”

Also, the method of buying milk that was used in this study is questionable and might have skewed the results, according to Rachelle Lesteshen, founder of Unlatched. “These researchers seem to have a bias against purchasing or selling human milk online,” she says. “They collect samples anonymously and refuse to communicate with sellers. This narrows down the pool to those people just interested in money, which is definitely a motive for doctoring and diluting breast milk. That’s not a typical situation. It’s unfortunate that these researchers’ methods are ignoring and discounting these situations in order to sensationalize human milk buying as being scary and dangerous.”

Moms who purchase or accept donations of human milk are often doing so because they have a need for breast milk — either they have supply issues, or their child cannot tolerate cow’s milk-based infant formulas. While caution should certainly be used, it doesn’t mean all milk that changes hands is bad for your baby.

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