We don’t know exactly how many women are selling and buying breast milk online, but this phenomenon has become more popular over the past several years. My research team from the Center for Biobehavioral Health at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in collaboration with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and The Ohio State University, bought samples of this milk from ads women had posted on milk-exchange websites.
It is more common than you may realize for women not to be able to produce enough breast milk for their baby, so I can empathize with a mom’s desire to try to provide the benefits of breast milk to their baby, but based on our research, don’t buy from strangers online to provide breast milk.
Information provided by sellers in their classified ads online, such as “I eat an organic diet” or “great quality” had no direct implication on the safety of the breast milk. At the same time, they often did not include information about the use of hygienic milk handling or storage practices, screening for diseases transmissible by milk, or limiting or abstaining from legal or illegal drugs.
Here are some things we found from the samples we analyzed in the lab:
More than 75 percent of breast milk samples purchased via the internet contained either high levels of bacteria or bacteria that can cause illness.
Many samples purchased online had very high bacterial counts and some even had high amounts of fecal contamination in the milk. A few samples contained salmonella.
Harmful bacteria in this milk may have come from the use of either unclean containers or unsanitary breast milk pump parts.
Shipping practices played a role in the levels of bacteria in the milk purchased online, as some sellers made no effort to keep the milk cold before they shipped it.
For premature babies or sick babies, these risks are especially dangerous to their health.
If you are producing extra milk, rather than selling it online, consider donating to a milk bank. Milk banks are safer alternatives for breast milk if the mother cannot provide milk because donors receive proper instructions and the milk is pasteurized, limiting the risk of bacterial illness.
Sarah A. Keim, MA, MS, PhD is a principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She is an assistant professor of pediatrics in The Ohio State University College of Medicine and of Epidemiology in the College of Public Health.
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