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Baby Formula Vs. Donor Breast Milk: Which is Safer?

The Short of It

When it comes to feeding a baby donated breast milk from a stranger versus baby formula, which is safer? The answer might surprise you.

The Lowdown

In an article on Forbes.com called, "Parents Put That Stranger's Breast Milk Down and Pick Up a Bottle of Formula," the claim is made that if a mom has to rely on unregulated, donated breast milk from a stranger to stick to the "breast is best" philosophy, she may be endangering her baby far more than if she were to switch to formula.

The potential danger stems from unregulated online milk sharing forums that are so popular nowadays. The author of the piece points out that babies who receive milk through banks affiliated with The Human Milk Banking Association of North America must have a prescription, and the association has FDA and CDC oversight and follows stringent screening, processing and distribution guidelines. But moms who are unable to breastfeed or pump and don't have babies with a recognized health problem that requires a prescription, are left to use the unregulated donations coordinated by online milk sharing forums.

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Dr. Adam Ratner, Division Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at New York University School of Medicine, says a host of infections and diseases can be transmitted via unregulated breast milk, such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, cytomegalovirus (CMV), and group B Streptococcus (GBS), to name a few.

"Many of these infections can occur without causing symptoms. The donor may feel fine but still transmit the infection via breast milk," he says.

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Ratner cautions, "I can't think of a single instance for which feeding a child milk from an essentially unknown source, shipped or stored in unknown ways, with unknown levels of bacterial or viral contamination and unknown levels of drugs, alcohol, or other contaminants would be a good idea. In the case of unregulated sharing of breast milk, I worry that in an effort to do the best thing for their baby, some parents might make decisions that actually put the child at considerably more risk."

The Upshot

In her Forbes piece, writer Kavin Senapathy cites studies that show many other factors contribute to a child's overall health and well-being beyond being breastfed, and she suggests that perhaps the "breast is best" mantra has demonized baby formula way too much, to the point that many parents are willing to buy potentially contaminated breast milk from strangers to avoid it.

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Of course, the topic of how a baby is fed will always be super-charged for most parents, all of whom have one thing in common: They are trying to do what's best for their children. Let's just hope the number one consideration is baby's safety and not blind allegiance to three little words: "breast is best."

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