The Most Important Lesson from the Donor Breast Milk Study

Suzanne Barston, a.k.a. Fearless Formula Feeder, weighs in on the recent donor breast milk safety study

Those of you who have been reading my Fearless Formula Feeder blog long enough are probably well aware that I hate hypocrisy. I mean, I hate it. I hate it in politics, I hate it in religion, I hate it in the spats I have with Fearless Husband, and of course, I hate it in the breastfeeding/formula feeding debate.

But most of all, I hate it in myself.

That’s why I’m sitting here agonizing over how to report on a study that hit the news cycle tonight. According to NBC News,

a new study finds that human milk bought and sold on the Internet may be contaminated — and dangerous…Nearly 75 percent of breast milk bought through the site OnlyTheBreast.com was tainted with high levels of disease-causing bacteria, including germs found in human waste…That’s according to Sarah A. Keim, a researcher at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where her team purchased more than 100 samples of human milk last year, compared them to unpasteurized samples donated to a milk bank and then tested them for safety…what the researchers found was worrisome: more colonies of Gram-negative bacteria including coliform, staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria in the milk purchased online, and, in about 20 percent of samples, cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which can cause serious illness in premature or sick babies. The contamination was associated with poor milk collection, storage or shipping practices, the analysis showed.

Here’s the problem: I look at articles which report on the dangers of formula with an intensely critical eye. It would be horrendously hypocritical for me not to do the same in this case -- and I’m especially worried, because the people purchasing donor milk are in the same boat as many FFFs (fearless formula feeders) -- people who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t. I don’t want to turn my back on my audience and be a hypocrite in one fell swoop.

And yet.

Obtaining milk online is a new construct. We do not have several generations of humans raised on donor milk to examine and rely on for (admittedly insufficient, but oddly comforting) anecdata. We can’t define “donor milk” as clearly as we define commercial formula, because it isn’t a static product. Formula does not change based on a baby’s needs and age, or based on the diet or environment of the woman producing it; breastmilk does. There is not the issue of online, anonymous dealings when we discuss formula (well, unless you count the 16 cans of Alimentum my husband purchased on Ebay…I know, I know, but it was sealed. And that shit’s expensive if you buy it retail).

Discussing donor milk and the safety thereof is not the same as discussing formula, because there are so many more issues at play. This study is not about whether donor milk can nourish an infant better than formula can. This is about the biology of a live substance, and what happens to that substance once it leaves one person’s body and is transported to another’s. This is about body politics, and e-commerce. It is so much more complex than breast versus bottle.

So I hope I’m not being hypocritical when I look favorably at this study, because I do think it’s one worth taking seriously, as long as we acknowledge the limitations. Let’s review those, first:

1. It was a singular study. ONE study. Which used donor milk from one specific organization.

2. As the study is not yet available online, there’s still a lot we don’t know. NBC reports, “Of the 101 samples analyzed, 72 were contaminated with bacteria and would not have met criteria for feeding without pasteurization set by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, or HMBANA.” I’m not sure how these criteria are set by HMBANA, and I don’t know exactly what the dangers of these bacteria are.

3. We don’t know that any of the babies who would have received this milk would necessarily have gotten sick. (This is one of the things we discuss with formula feeding studies, remember? For example, many people worry about the GMOs in formula. And yeah, most formulas contain ingredients derived from genetically modified corn, soy, and other foodstuffs. But we have no evidence that babies fed these formulas suffer any ill effects from these tiny amounts of GMOs.)

Now, let’s talk about why this study is a little different than most of the breastmilk vs. formula studies we encounter.

1. The results were in vitro -- aka, found in a lab. These were not observational or self-reported or marred by recollection bias. These were findings that were discovered from looking at samples under a microscope, in a controlled environment.

2. We do know that some of these bacteria are dangerous to babies. 20 percent of the collected donor milk samples contained cytomegalovirus, which according to NBC “can cause serious illness in premature or sick babies.” 20 percent is a substantial amount. The article didn’t give numbers for the samples which contained other disease-causing bacteria like coliform and staphylococcus, nor do we know if the amount of bacteria was sufficient to cause illness. (Please note: I think we do need to approach this with caution until we see more information, because there’s a chance the amount of bacteria wasn’t clinically significant.)

3. A large part of my ennui with formula studies is that most tell us the same thing: breastfeeding mothers are associated with healthier children. There’s not much variance in the theme of the research, or what can be done about it. This study is nothing like that. It is giving us actual information about the actual risk of bacterial contamination through donor milk. This is exactly why I started taking formula preparation rules so seriously when I saw in vitro studies on bacteria found in infant formula. It’s hard to argue with cold, hard science that has removed the human condition from the equation.

More importantly, this study offers us an opportunity. Not only does it allow us to improve milk sharing -- something that can and should be a choice for moms who cannot or choose not to breastfeed -- it reminds us that cold, hard science can be translated into better feeding options for families. Donor milk can and should be tested, to see how it needs to be stored and transported and screened. Formula can be compared with donor milk so that parents can understand the risks and benefits to both scenarios. Since one of the advantages of breastmilk is its ever-changing, adaptive personality, we could look at how the donor milk from a mom nursing a toddler might affect a newborn. We could even see if, say, the milk from women with higher IQs equates to higher IQs in babies fed their donor milk (oy, can you imagine the eugenic excitement over a finding like that? Shudder.). You see where I’m going with this. When we’re discussing the substance rather than the behavior, a whole world of research will open up -- research that can ultimately lead to improved formula, improved donor milk, and improved options for both babies and parents.

Lastly, it seems that defensiveness about negative press for one’s feeding choice is not exclusive to formula feeders. NBC quotes one milk sharing network’s founder as accusing the research of being “A blatant attack on women attempting to feed their babies”:

“..(It) is cruel and you should feel ashamed of yourself for spreading misinformation,” Khadijah Cisse, a midwife who founded MilkShare, a portal for connecting women cited in the new research, said in an email to NBC News. “Anyone can type up any bit of lies they want and make claims. Breast milk is supposed to contain bacteria.”

I feel bad for Cisse, as I know what it feels like to read research that denies my own lived experiences, or makes me feel judged for feeding my child in a specific manner. In her defense (and mine), it’s really hard to keep a lid on one’s anger when the media takes a 5k story and runs a marathon with it, without any consideration for context or nuance.

Imagine how much easier it would be to keep that proverbial lid tightly locked, if feeding choices were supported and respected. If the dialogue didn’t always involve universal bests. If we could make choices armed with more cold, hard science so that the choices themselves didn’t have to so damn cold and hard.

There’s a lot we could learn from this study.

Or, you know. It could die in an avalanche of hypocrisy.

Suzanne Barston is the former Editor-in-Chief of Los Angeles Family Magazine, and a freelance writer. She is the author of Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t and blogs as her alter ego, the “Fearless Formula Feeder.”

Read more from Fearless Formula Feeder:
The 2-Hour Rule: Is a bottle safe when it’s been left out too long?

The Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Formula Feeding: Recognizing Sensitivity, Intolerance or Allergy to Formula

Bottle-feeding and weight gain in infancy: Does it matter what’s in the bottle?

FILED UNDER:
Connect with Us
Follow Our Pins

Yummy recipes, DIY projects, home decor, fashion and more curated by iVillage staffers.

Follow Our Tweets

The very dirty truth about fashion internships... DUN DUN @srslytheshow http://t.co/wfewf

On Instagram

Behind-the-scenes pics from iVillage.

Best of the Web