I Still Trust Online Breast Milk Sites For My Baby

A Florida mother responds to reports that there are high bacteria levels in breast milk purchased via milk exchange websites

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Courtesy of Morgan Latimer

The Internet has made it a lot easier for women who have ample breast milk to connect with those who seek it for their babies. But a new study published recently in the journal Pediatrics is causing a stir among parents who rely on breast milk donated or sold via milk-sharing sites.

The research indicated that milk purchased online contained potentially disease-causing bacteria, like salmonella and staphylococcus, in greater quantities than milk donated to milk banks, where it is pasteurized and either sold or dispensed with a prescription to premature babies.

Morgan Latimer, a 27-year-old mother of two with one on the way, says she relied on 18,000 ounces of donated milk to feed her youngest. Frustrated by the study’s depiction of the online milk sharing culture, Latimer explained to TIME why she will continue to use non-pasteurized milk from milk donors and is stocking her freezer right now, despite the new findings.

(MORE: Why New Mothers Stop Breast-Feeding)

Here is her story, as told to Allison Yarrow:

In his first 22 months of life, my youngest son was nourished with breast milk from about 30 women, myself included. I have insufficient glandular tissue (IGT) and don’t produce much milk. I tried everything, including medication and herbs, to stimulate milk production but nothing worked.

My midwife introduced us to milk sharing. Her clients donated breast milk to supplement my milk. Some would nurse him for me. The first time I watched him nurse from another mother was emotionally really hard. I wanted to be the one to give him milk, but he thrived on donor milk. He immediately started gaining weight, he was sleeping better and he was not unhappy anymore. Breastfeeding is so much more than just nutrition—I could still breastfeed my baby but also supplement with the best substitute available.

My husband and I have driven all over the state of Florida, where we live, for breast milk. It’s important to me to know who I’m getting milk from, to see that they are nice, and have a clean home and healthy children. The first time I picked up milk from someone I didn’t know was nerve-wracking. I asked the questions most recipients ask—did she smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or take medications? Some medications are breastfeeding friendly, and I wouldn’t mind if she had a glass of wine at night or something, but I’m not comfortable accepting milk from a smoker. Her three month old was thriving on the same milk she was giving me, which was such a comfort.

(MORE: Is the Medical Community Failing Breast-Feeding Moms?)

Once I met a working mom in the back of a Lowe’s parking lot. I always replace donor’s Ziplock bags designed to hold breast milk for them so they don’t have to cover that cost. For longtime donors, I always gather together a gift. For one mom we regularly picked up from, I bought her a pendant on Etsy that an artist made from that mom’s breast milk. It had two white hearts on it—one for her baby, one for mine, and she can wear it around her neck.

Buying breast milk from someone online is totally different than finding a donor using a milk sharing website like Eats on Feets and meeting face-to-face. Mothers who sell their milk online are more likely to be doing it for financial gain; mothers who donate their milk to women like me, are doing it because they believe all babies deserve breast milk–two opposite crowds of people.

I never considered using a milk bank because I prefer unpasteurized breast milk, which is full of the natural antibodies killed off in the pasteurization process banks use. Milk banks are also expensive to use, charging as much as three to five dollars per ounce. When my son was really little, I was using between 25 and 30 ounces each day, and milk purchased from a bank could have cost as much as $150 per day.

(MORE: 20 Ways to Make Breast-Feeding Easier)

I’ll try to exclusively breastfeed my third child, due in March, but I accept that I’ll likely need to supplement again. I’m already stocking the freezer with donor milk, and I won’t stop using milk from others because of this study criticizing it.

This new study may represent the buying of milk, but not the sharing of it.  I believe that the study was inherently biased in favor of milk from milk banks. Purchased samples were sent to a rented mailbox, and according to the report, most of the bacteria growth happened during transit. If you ordered frozen meat in the mail, and it arrived thawed and warm, would you serve it to your family? No, you would toss it and complain. Same thing goes for breast milk. Comparing the process the researchers used with the way that a mother would handle the milk sharing isn’t fair. With my children, I’m careful, storing milk in a deep freeze and getting to know donors personally.

(MORE: More Breast-Feeding Could Save Billions and Prevent Thousands of Breast-Cancer Cases)

Women who give their breast milk on top of feeding their own babies are selfless. It’s a special gift, and no thank you could ever be enough to show my gratitude.

(You can find more about the  Human Milk Banking Association of North America here.)