Why are lactivists flipping out over breastmilk contamination?


When I first read about the new study that shows that breastmilk sold through unregulated arrangements has a high rate of contamination, I wondered how lactivists were going to handle the issue. Frankly, I thought they were going to ignore it, since it has nothing to do with breastfeeding one’s own baby.

But I was wrong. They freaked out and the freakout tells us quite a bit about lactivists and their fantastical thinking about breastmilk.

The study, Microbial Contamination of Human Milk Purchased Via the Internet, was published online yesterday by the journal Pediatrics. The authors found:

Most (74%) Internet milk samples were colonized with Gram-negative bacteria or had >104 colony-forming units/mL total aerobic count. They exhibited higher mean total aerobic, total Gram-negative, coliform, and Staphylococcus sp counts than milk bank samples. Growth of most species was positively associated with days in transit, and negatively associated with number of months since the milk was expressed, per simple linear regression. No samples were HIV type 1 RNA-positive; 21% of Internet samples were cytomegalovirus DNA-positive.

CONCLUSIONS: Human milk purchased via the Internet exhibited high overall bacterial growth and frequent contamination with pathogenic bacteria, reflecting poor collection, storage, or shipping practices…

Lactivists could have pointed out the obvious: any time you have an unregulated trade in bodily fluids (think blood, or donor sperm), you run a great risk that the fluid will be contaminated with infectious agents, may pick up bacterial contaminants, and will spoil when not frozen properly. When it happens with blood, we don’t flip out an insist that those who point it out are attempting to smear blood transfusions. When it happens with with donor sperm, we don’t flip out and condemn sperm donation. We simply implement regulations that require testing of the fluid and mandate proper freezing procedures.

So why didn’t lactivists point out the obvious? Why did they freak out instead? As far as I can tell, it’s because they can’t handle the thought that breastmilk isn’t magical.

The reaction of Allison Dixley, self-proclaimed Alpha Parent, is typical of the hysterical response:

The DFFs [Dumb Formula Feeders] are lapping it up. However the study is little more than a red herring. Sure, breast milk contains bacteria (news flash: it’s meant to!) Notice the story says “Some bacteria may not be harmful” and then goes on to say: “but salmonella is among germs that could pose a threat to infants”

To this, I reply:


Consider that formula is not designed to carry bacteria yet often carries a wide variety of potentially harmful ones.

Consider that formula contains none of the antibodies that help to counterbalance any iffy bacteria content.

Consider that formula is as prone to contamination (if not moreso through human error and longer preparation chain) as breast milk.

Consider also that mother to mother milk sharing (which this ‘study’ warns against) removes control from medical professionals (the very same medical professionals which carried out this study).

This story may be great DFF fodder, but it contributes little to improving the welfare of babies. The infant feeding hierarchy remains: direct breastfeeding from mom > pumped milk from mom > trusted wet nurse > pumped milk from trusted donor > formula.

Hey, Allison, you didn’t include “pumped milk from unknown donors being paid for it,” which is actually what we are talking about.

And Allison, you might want to go back and review your 4th grade math. When discussing the relative risk of bacterial contamination between breastmilk and formula, we must look at RATE. You remember: the number of incidents over the total number of events. Yes, powdered formula can get contaminated with harmful bacteria, too, but the rate of that happening is so low that when it does, a scientific paper is needed to alert people to it. In other words, it is quite rare. In contrast, this breastmilk study found a harmful virus contamination rate of 21%.

Why is Allison so furious? Apparently because it has been pointed out that breastmilk is not magical and is subject to the exact same concerns that apply to any bodily fluid.

Even some medical professionals manage to miss the point. Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine reacts as if the truth that breastmilk is a body fluid like any other is some sort of plot to undermine breastfeeding.:

“Breast milk as bacterial brew” pushes lots of cultural buttons — from the “ick factor” to our reliance on mass-produced and marketed substitutes, rather than women, to nourish our children. Let’s stop pressing buttons, and start looking for solutions, so that more families can achieve their infant feeding goals.


Why are lactivists so quick to assume that pointing out the obvious about breastmilk is an attack on breastfeeding?

Partly it’s because lactivists view anything that doesn’t validate their belief that breastmilk is always superior as an attack on breastfeeding. But mainly, the hysteria comes from the threat to their own self-esteem. If breastmilk (even improperly stored, contaminated breastmilk) is just a bodily fluid subject to the same principles as other bodily fluids, it isn’t magical. I guess they worry that if it isn’t magical, the fact that breastfeeding isn’t the “superpower” they claim, and just another thing that some mothers do and other mothers don’t.

And that goes for the whole idea of milk sharing as well. It boggles my mind that any mother would give her child the unscreened, possibly contaminated bodily fluid of a stranger that she bought on the internet. The reality is that the benefits of breastmilk are trivial and hardly worth the risk. Indeed, there is no evidence of any kind that infants derive any benefit from the frozen breastmilk of strangers. Yet women have been so brainwashed by the fantastical claims of lactivists that they actually believe they are providing something valuable to their infants.

What’s the take away message from the Pediatrics study? The message is “don’t buy unregulated breastmilk over the internet.” That’s it. It has no implications for breastfeeding at all.

What’s the take away message from the lactivist hysteria over the study? The message is that these women cannot think rationally about breastmilk.