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The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - YOUR DAILY BREAK - Eve Glazier + El­iz­a­beth Ko Ask the Doc­tors

DEAR DOC­TOR » Af­ter the hur­ri­cane in Hous­ton, a lot of moms do­nated their breast milk to help the ba­bies. Is that safe? DEAR READER » For as long as women have been giv­ing birth, they have been shar­ing breast milk. In ear­li­est his­tory — ref­er­ences to the prac­tice date back to 2000 B.C. — this was in the guise of the wet nurse. That is, a lac­tat­ing woman who breast­fed in­fants who were not her own. If a mother is un­able to ei­ther breast­feed or ex­press her own milk, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion cites donor milk as the next best feed­ing op­tion.

That’s be­cause breast milk is the op­ti­mal food for in­fants. Not only is it a source of pro­bi­otics for gut health and an­ti­bod­ies to fight off viruses and bac­te­ria, but stud­ies show that breast­fed ba­bies get fewer ear in­fec­tions, have a lower in­ci­dence of obe­sity, and have a lower risk of con­di­tions like asthma, di­a­betes and eczema. They are less likely to de­velop gas­troen­teri­tis and di­ar­rhea than ba­bies raised on for­mula, and have a lower in­ci­dence of SIDS, or sud­den in­fant death syn­drome.

In re­cent years, we’ve seen the ad­vent of milk banks. These are ser­vices that col­lect breast milk do­na­tions for use in hos­pi­tals for pre-term in­fants, and for use by women who can’t pro­duce enough of their own milk. The do­na­tions come from women who have un­der­gone med­i­cal screen­ing, of­ten in­clud­ing blood tests. The donor milk is then pro­cessed and, at sev­eral points in the process, tested for pathogens.

This is im­por­tant be­cause ba­bies can be ex­posed to in­fec­tions and dis­eases, in­clud­ing the HIV virus, via breast milk. Hu­man milk can con­tain chem­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­tam­i­nants, il­le­gal drugs, and even cer­tain pre­scrip­tion and over­the-counter drugs. And like any food, breast milk must be col­lected and stored prop­erly to avoid spoilage and mi­cro­bial con­tam­i­na­tion.

To an­swer your ques­tion, yes, breast milk that comes from a rep­utable milk bank is safe. Steps are taken to screen the donors and then prop­erly process the milk. And while many women take part in the hun­dreds of on­line pri­vate milk-shar­ing net­works that have sprung up around the coun­try, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion rec­om­mends against them.

The FDA cites the lack of rig­or­ous donor screen­ing as a pri­mary con­cern. Peer-to-peer net­works rely on self-re­port­ing of the donor’s phys­i­cal health. Also, re­cip­i­ents of donor milk within these net­works are de­pen­dent on each donor’s ded­i­ca­tion to fol­low­ing good hy­giene prac­tices in both col­lec­tion and stor­age.

When it comes to pro­cess­ing donor milk, the milk banks use the Holder method of pas­teur­iza­tion. This in­volves heat­ing the milk to a rel­a­tively low tem­per­a­ture, one that kills pathogens but leaves the ben­e­fi­cial qual­i­ties of the milk largely in­tact.

At this time, there are no univer­sal health and safety guide­lines for milk shar­ing, though a few states have es­tab­lished stan­dards for milk banks to ad­here to. If you’d like to learn more about milk banks, or want to find one in your area, the Hu­man Milk Bank­ing As­so­ci­a­tion of North Amer­ica, or HMBANA, can help. It’s a vol­un­tary pro­fes­sional as­so­ci­a­tion that sug­gests safety guide­lines for donor screen­ing, milk col­lec­tion, stor­age, test­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion. You can find it on­line at hmbana.org.

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