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K-State Research and Extension News

Breastfeeding is Best, but what if Breast Milk is Limited or Unavailable?

K-State specialists warn against buying breast milk online from unknown sources.   

April 27, 2015          

BreastfeedingOLATHE, Kan. – There may be no greater joy than welcoming a baby into the world, and many moms want to give their babies the best start possible by breastfeeding. For some, however, the amount of milk they produce is limited. For others, the baby may be unable to nurse. And for many adoptive mothers, using one’s own breast milk is not an option.

A number of circumstances can lead to a parent’s dilemma whether to buy breast milk or to feed commercially-available formula, said Londa Nwadike, a consumer food safety specialist with Kansas State University Research and Extension. She encourages parents in this situation to either attain breast milk from a family member or some other trusted person – or to buy formula, but warns against buying breast milk online from unknown sources.

“If you can get breast milk from someone that you know and trust, great,” said Nwadike, who is also a food safety specialist with the University of Missouri Extension. If that’s not possible, however, she encourages mothers to use formula, rather than buying breast milk online, where you don’t know what you’re getting.

She cited a recent Ohio State University study that found 10 out of 100 bottles of breast milk purchased online were mixed with cow’s milk. That’s just one of the possible unknowns when buying breast milk online, she said, adding, “You don’t know what’s in it. You don’t know if it was handled safely, if storage containers were clean or if it was stored at proper temperatures.”

Another Ohio State study from 2013 found that nearly 75 percent of breast milk purchased online was contaminated with significant amounts of bacteria and viruses.

Nwadike, who breastfed her two young children, said if she’d been faced with the choice of buying online from an unknown source or buying formula, she would have opted for formula.

“It’s a smarter choice than to risk the safety of your baby with an unknown source,” said Sandy Procter, nutrition specialist with K-State Research and Extension, adding that no federal agency, including the Food and Drug Administration, currently regulates online breast milk sales.

“In our efforts to make everyone understand how beneficial breastfeeding is we’ve sometimes made people feel bad about not being able to,” she said. “We want people to understand that if they can breastfeed, that’s great, but if they can’t, formula can be a healthy alternative.”

Breastfeeding benefits mom, baby .... and society

“We know there are benefits for babies and mothers, plus there are societal benefits to breastfeeding,” Procter said, starting with colostrum, the fluid that a mother produces before her milk comes in. It has the mother’s antibodies that help fend off illness, plus is high in protein, minerals and vitamin A.

Once breast milk comes in, its composition changes as the baby grows. If the baby is premature, the milk is higher in some nutrients and that composition changes throughout the infant’s life, she said. The composition of breast milk even changes throughout a single feeding. Toward the end of the feeding, the amount of fat increases, so the baby feels full.

“There is no replicating this,” Procter said, adding that the protein in human milk is more digestible than it is in formula. “It’s pretty amazing how nutritious, but easy to digest it is, plus it protects against allergies and some chronic diseases.”

Breastmilk is low in iron, but the iron is more readily absorbed by the baby than is iron found in formula.

“Prolonged breast feeding also seems to protect against childhood obesity,” said Procter, who added that the reasons are unclear but may be due in part to the fact it’s physically easier for a baby to drink out of a bottle than to breastfeed. Plus, parents who are feeding from a bottle can see when there is a certain amount left and may encourage a child to continue even if the baby has indicated he’s full.

Breastfeeding may reduce the risk of ovarian and breast cancer in pre-menopausal moms, Procter said. Research seems to show that the more a mother has breastfed the less chances she has of contracting those diseases. During breastfeeding, calcium does transfer from the mom’s bones but the process ultimately helps rebuild calcium and bone mass after breastfeeding stops.

“It’s a pretty amazing banking system,” she said.

 Breastfeeding helps the uterus reduce to its normal size more quickly, plus it burns calories.

“In some cases it helps a mom get back to her pre-pregnancy weight more quickly. The length of time makes a difference,” Procter said.

Breastfeeding is good for society, she added, noting that there’s less need for packaging and it reduces the incidence and severity of childhood illnesses, which keeps working parents at work rather than at home with a sick child.”


Keep safety in mind if expressing and storing breast milk

In situations where breastfeeding mothers are expressing milk and storing it, the K-State specialists encourage safe handling practices outlined in “Using breast milk safely” available online.

In situations where breastfeeding mothers are expressing milk and storing it, the K-State specialists encourage safe handling practices outlined in "Using breast milk safely" available online.

Always wash hands before expressing or handling breast milk and ensure that bottles and equipment are clean.

Use clean containers: screw cap bottles, glass or hard (BPA-free) plastic cups with tight caps or bags designed for breast milk storage.

Label with date the milk was expressed and child's name (if to be used at a childcare facility).

Completely cool fresh milk before adding to previously chilled or thawed milk. Do not add warm breast milk to frozen milk.

Thaw the oldest milk first. Thaw in a refrigerator overnight or swirl in a bowl of warm water or under warm running water. Use within 24 hours of thawing. Do not thaw at room temperature and do not thaw using a microwave. Do not re-freeze breast milk once it's been thawed.

Before feeding stored milk, gently swirl it to evenly distribute the cream that rises to the top during storage. Milk can be fed cold or warmed to body temperature. Do not vigorously shake the container.

Discard unconsumed milk left over from the feeding. Do not save it for another feeding.

Carefully wash bottles and pumping equipment with soap and water and air dry.


K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.

Story by: Mary Lou Peter
K-State Research & Extension News

Dr. Londa Nwadike: K-State Olathe – 913-307-7391 or lnwadike@ksu.edu; Dr. Sandy Procter: K-State Manhattan – 785-532-1675 or procter@ksu.edu