Should You Buy Breast Milk Online?

Expressed breastmilk stored in fridge

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When it comes to feeding your baby, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of their life. However, the pressure to provide babies with breast milk over other feeding options is driving some parents to buy unscreened and unregulated breast milk online, which can put a baby's fragile health at risk. 

A series of studies conducted by researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, found that breast milk bought through unregulated websites contained high levels of bacterial contamination. The FDA also explicitly warns parents against sourcing milk in this way.

As well as harmful bacteria, drugs, alcohol, and infections such as HIV can all be passed on to a baby through unscreened breast milk. “People need to understand that there are health and safety risks associated with babies drinking unpasteurized and unscreened breast milk,” says Sarah Keim, PhD, a principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Despite this warning, the pandemic has created renewed interest in the unregulated practice of buying and selling breast milk online, with some parents actively seeking out breast milk that is advertised as containing COVID-19 antibodies in a misguided bid to protect their infants against the virus. 

Why Some Parents Are Opting To Buy Breastmilk Online

Parents who are unable to breastfeed themselves or have low milk supply may look to supplement their baby's diet by buying breast milk online over other options, such as formula.

"Many times, the desire to obtain unscreened milk is because of societal pressure to provide human milk and inappropriate vilification of the alternative (formula) and to be honest, formula is a safe and healthy option which does not generate the same risks that unregulated human milk might generate," says Krupa Playforth, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician from Northern Virginia.  

In addition to the societal pressure to breastfeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted some parents to seek out breast milk supposedly containing COVID-19 antibodies in a bid to offer their baby some level of protection against the virus. Studies show that antibodies to COVID-19 generated through either catching the virus or receiving the vaccine can be passed through to a baby through breast milk, although how much protection this offers is still unclear.

Sarah Keim, PhD

I can't think of a situation in a country like the United States where it would be a good idea to purchase breast milk online for a baby.

— Sarah Keim, PhD

Usually priced between $1 and $6 per fluid ounce, 'liquid gold' is available through websites such as Only The Breast and even listed on Craigslist. Although buying and selling breast milk is legal, it is also unregulated, and experts are clear that the risk of exposing infants to harmful bacteria and infection far outweighs any potential protection against COVID-19.

"I can't think of a situation in a country like the United States where it would be a good idea to purchase breast milk online for a baby," says Dr. Keim, who has conducted extensive research into the safety of buying breast milk online.

What You Get When You Buy Breast Milk Online

Unlike sourcing breast milk through accredited milk banks (which prioritize infants with the greatest need), no agency enforces health and hygiene standards for buying breast milk online. Some websites that facilitate the buying and selling of breast milk, such as Only The Breast, recommend that milk donors are medically screened prior to purchase. However, this screening isn’t mandatory. Without screening, it is impossible to know the health history of the breast milk donor or the sanitary practices regarding storage.

“Non-profit milk banks in the US screen their donors to make sure they are healthy and they carefully pasteurize the milk to make sure it is safe and healthy for babies to consume,” explains Dr. Keim. “Websites where parents can get milk for free or by paying leave it up to the consumer to decide whether the milk is safe to feed their baby.”

As well as containing high levels of bacterial contaminations that can be incredibly detrimental to a baby's health, Dr. Keim's research found that breast milk purchased online had, in several instances, been supplemented by cow's milk. The AAP recommends against giving babies under the age of 12 months cow's milk as it is difficult for them to digest.

The Health Risks Associated With Unregulated Breast Milk

During a study conducted in 2013, 75% of the breast milk Dr. Keim and her team bought online was contaminated with bacteria, including coliform, which is bacteria commonly found in animal and human feces.

"We completed a series of studies showing that most of the milk being sold online contained disease-causing bacteria or high levels of bacteria overall, or it had been adulterated with substances like cow’s milk or had come from donors who were not honest about their health habits," says Dr. Keim.

Subsequently, the risks to babies from consuming breast milk purchased online include exposure to viruses including HIV, exposure to disease-causing bacteria, and exposure to environmental contaminants that the donor may have encountered. Additionally, there is also the possibility the milk may have been tampered with, tainted, or may not be human milk at all, says Dr. Keim. 

"Unregulated breast milk can be dangerous for your infant," agrees Dr. Playforth. "HIV, hepatitis, and many other infectious diseases can be transmitted via breast milk. Without the screening process, you cannot guarantee that the milk is free of infection or contamination, and infants, especially young ones, are especially vulnerable to these factors."

In addition to a lack of mandatory screening, the way the breast milk is handled, stored, shipped, and thawed can all increase the number of harmful bacteria present.

Safe Alternatives To Buying Breast Milk Online

Being unable to breastfeed your baby can happen for a number of reasons, including a delay in milk supply, stress, or even an infectious medical condition making breastfeeding unsafe, explains Amna Husain, MD, IBCLC, a board-certified pediatrician and lactation consultant in New Jersey. "These parents can absolutely choose to formula feed or even use the option of donor breast milk," adds Dr. Husain.

Breastfeeding is also something that you may simply choose not to do–and that is perfectly fine. "Although [the benefits of breastfeeding] are well documented, the importance of a parent who is able to connect with their child and maintain their own physical and mental health is under-emphasized," says Dr. Playforth.

"Alternatives could include donor milk from an accredited milk bank or formula, or a combination, and all of these have their relative advantages and disadvantages," she continues. "The 'best' option for a family is going to be the one that works best for that family, taking into account both biological and psychosocial factors."

Choosing how to feed your baby is a deeply personal decision. Try to be flexible and adjust your feeding expectations according to what both you and your baby need. If you feel under any pressure to feed your baby in a particular way, you should discuss this with your baby's pediatrician.

A Word From Verywell

The message that "breast is best," while well intended, can pressure some families into providing breast milk by any means and at any cost. This narrative is dangerous as it can influence parents and caregivers into taking risks in terms of where this breast milk comes from in a misguided effort to provide their baby with "the best." In reality, the practice of buying unscreened and unregulated breast milk leaves infants at risk of exposure to harmful bacteria and infection, such as HIV and hepatitis.

If you feel under pressure to provide your baby with breast milk but are unable to, discuss your feeding options with your pediatrician. At Verywell Family, we firmly believe that "the best" feeding option is the one that works for you as a family.

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10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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