Breast milk sharing has become fairly common, but is it safe?

Silver Lake actress, Cathryn de Prume, plays with her 2 year old daughter, Kylie. When she adopted Kylie as a newborn, she was reticent to give her donated breast milk and started her on formula.
Silver Lake actress, Cathryn de Prume, plays with her 2 year old daughter, Kylie. When she adopted Kylie as a newborn, she was reticent to give her donated breast milk and started her on formula.
Deepa Fernandes/KPCC
Silver Lake actress, Cathryn de Prume, plays with her 2 year old daughter, Kylie. When she adopted Kylie as a newborn, she was reticent to give her donated breast milk and started her on formula.
Moms, Cathryn de Prume (left) and Tameka Issartel (right) meet regularly at the playground with their daughters. Issartel donated her breast milk to de Prume when Kylie was a baby.
Deepa Fernandes/KPCC

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Silver Lake actress Cathryn de Prume and her husband had been trying for years to adopt a newborn.

As they waited to receive word, they did the usual preparations. They researched the best strollers, the best diapers and even bought nursery furniture and kept it in a friends garage until they needed it.  

One issue remained: formula or breast milk?

De Prume is a big believer in the benefits of nursing. And while she couldn’t produce milk, there were other options.

“I had researched about a lot of adoptive parents getting donated breast milk,” de Prume said.

The Internet is brimming with breast milk sharing collectives, milk banks and even individuals willing to donate to other moms who can’t produce milk for various reasons.

De Prume’s initial reaction was: that’s gross.

"Honestly, it’s a bodily fluid, and who knows about diseases," she said.

So when newborn daughter Kylie finally arrived on September 5, 2011, her new parents decided to feed her formula.

According to Nancy Wight, a neonatologist and one of the foremost lactation experts in the country, milk sharing isn’t as unusual as you might think.

"Mothers have always been helped — and helped other mothers with shared milk and shared breastfeeding throughout the ages," she said.

She is a proponent of giving every infant breast milk because of its long list of germ killing components that help newborns build immunity to disease.

"There are certain factors that are found in every mother’s breast milk," she said, "like Lactoferrin, Lysozyme, different Cytokines, Prostaglandin, epidermal growth factor."

Wight said that these factors are transferred to the baby even if the milk is from another mother.

That’s not to say that Internet milk sharing is not without risk, Wight added.

A team of researchers from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Ohio tested 101 breast-milk samples they bought off the Internet. Three-quarters contained high amounts of bacteria, like salmonella, that could sicken babies.

“Now breast milk naturally contains many different types of bacteria — and some of these bacteria are extremely important for children’s growing immune and digestive systems,” said Sarah Keim, the epidemiologist who led the study. “But when they to grow to really high concentrations, or if they are a bacteria that don’t belong in milk — [bacteria] that are associated with a disease — that's when we get concerned.”

She said parents wouldn’t have any way to know the bacterial concentrations of the milk they receive from other parents on the Internet.

“Unless you have a scientific laboratory, you really can’t test the milk to know if it’s safe,” she said.

Keim said the safest way to share breast milk is through a milk bank. Often run by hospitals, they are akin to blood banks, with extensive screening procedures. They also pasteurize the milk to kill any harmful germs.

It’s what Studio City mom, Alisa Strathern, tried to do with her excess breast milk.

She produced so much more milk than her son could drink in his first year of life that she had to buy a standalone freezer to store it all. She was expressing an extra 20 ounces – more than a pint – every a day.

“I was trying to figure out somewhere to give it, because it’s liquid gold,” Strathern said, “and you don’t want to dump it down the drain.”

She answered the battery of questionnaires from local milk banks and submitted medical and blood work records.

But because she had had a cold – and couldn’t pinpoint when exactly that was – and was taking prenatal vitamins with an additive one milk bank didn’t like, none would take her milk.

Strathern consulted a lactation consultant who told her that her breast milk was fine.

“I found the best avenue just networking with other moms through different [online] resources like Boobybrigade and PeachHead and different blogs,” she said.

Strathern’s first milk donation was to a mom of newly adopted twins.

And despite her initial hesitation about feeding her daughter another mother’s breast milk, de Prume, the Silver Lake mom, ultimately became a huge advocate.

Her daughter Kylie was six weeks old when she met another parent with a child about the same age, Tameka Issartel, at a neighborhood mommy group.

They hit it off immediately and Issartel mentioned she had much more milk than she could use. The two moms became friends and would meet regularly in the playground with their babies.

Issartel would call de Prume when she had freshly expressed milk, and oftentimes it would still be warm when Kylie drank it. De Prume swears her colicky baby thrived on the donated breast milk and slept more deeply after consuming it. In return for the donations, she gave Issartel a breast pump and bags to store the milk in.

When Issartel’s donations weren’t enough, de Prume began scouring mommy blogs and listservs. She estimates she got milk from 25 moms via the Internet — all local moms with whom she could meet before accepting the milk.

“I’d go to little apartments, I’d go to fancy mansions,” de Prume said. She accepted milk from “all different kinds of moms.”