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Yes, donated breastmilk can be a safe alternative during infant formula shortage

For babies who don't have an intolerance, donated breastmilk might work as a formula alternative. Peer donations are generally safe, if vetted and pasteurized.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — "Don't do this. Don't do that." 

It's an exhausting word of caution for so many parents, who are just trying to feed their babies during a nationwide infant formula frenzy.

The shortage, tied largely to an Abbott plant closure, is stripping store shelves and sending parents driving hours, trying to find even one can of the precious commodity.

While leaders in Washington work to expedite production and shipments, some turn to friends and family for help, seeking out any safe option to keep their babies fed.

For a slew of reasons, not all mothers are able to breastfeed. Those who can might want to help.

THE QUESTION

Is it true donated breastmilk can be a safe alternative to infant formula?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

Yes, donated breastmilk can be a safe alternative to infant formula. Parents should use a trusted donor and pasteurize the donated milk, prior to administering it to their babies. Since not all babies can tolerate breastmilk, parents should consider talking to their child's pediatrician about best options.

WHAT WE FOUND

The Human Milk Banking Association of North America runs 31 certified milk banks, including one at WakeMed in Cary, NC. The milk banks accept, screen, sanitize and transport donor milk, mostly to hospitals. Families who want it at home need to get a prescription, then contact a partner pharmacy. 

The WakeMed Mothers' Milk Bank website explains the milk is self-pay and not covered by Medicaid or private insurance in the state. 

RELATED: Moms turn to milk banks, other options during baby formula shortage

"It's not really a viable option for most families," said certified lactation consultant Beth Sanders, BSN.

She added, "If a family is looking to receive donations or enter a milk-sharing relationship, I recommend they first check with close family and friends -- that would be their safest option, to receive milk from people they already know."

That said, Sanders emphasized parents must do some vetting, since certain health factors can pass to babies through breastmilk.

"Ask questions...about things like illnesses, bacterial infection, viral infection, such as Hepatitis B, HIV. Also, (ask about) environmental factors, like smoking, alcohol or drug use or environmental factors in the workplace," Sanders advised.

Yet regardless of a donor's credentials, unpasteurized human milk can contain bacteria. To sterilize (pasteurize) it, experts recommend two options proven to kill most bacteria:

  • Holder Method - stove-heat the milk in a canner to 145 degrees F (62.5 degrees C) for 30 minutes and then cool it gradually.
  • Flash Heating Method - place the milk in a glass jar and into a pot of water. Fill the water higher than the level of milk and turn on the stove very hot, until it comes to a rolling boil. Then, remove it immediately and let it cool. Keep in mind, once it is back to room temperature, the shelf life is short.

"The recommendation is your milk is good at room temperature for about four hours, but we can extend that to six hours if the environment is 'very clean.' The same goes for the refrigerator. Optimal milk storage in the refrigerator is about four days, but again, if the going gets rough, we can use milk that has been in there up to six days if it has been kept very clean," Sanders explained.

For lactating women interested in helping other families, Sanders suggested they try to increase supply by breastfeeding and pumping more frequently, eating nutritious food with ample calories and staying hydrated. Herbal supplements, like the popular Mother's Milk Tea and lactation cookies, also can assist with boosting production.

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