Experts say breast is best when it comes to feeding your baby, but Health Canada would like to specify that not just any breast will do.
On Wednesday, Health Canada reminded parents of the potential health risks that come from buying or sharing unprocessed breast milk. “Human milk is a bodily fluid and can transmit substances, such as prescription and non-prescription drugs, and can be contaminated with viruses, such as HIV,” the agency said in a release.
Breast milk also needs to be pumped, stored and handled correctly to be safe for a baby, Health Canada says. If it isn’t, it might spoil or get contaminated.
There are a number of reasons why parents sometimes turn to donor breast milk. Breastfeeding is still the method recommended by doctors to help infants get the nutrients they need and boost their immune systems.
But some mothers don’t produce enough breast milk, particularly if their babies are premature. Mothers who are diabetic also often don’t produce enough milk. If new moms are in chemotherapy, they may not produce milk at all, and if they’re on certain prescription medications, they could transmit those meds to the baby through their milk. Parents who adopt babies will also often rely on donated milk, if they choose not to use formula.
Donating breast milk is a fairly common practice, especially among women who over-produce milk, or who can’t use milk they’ve pumped because they discover their baby has an allergy. But donation doesn’t always go well.
Last week, a woman was kicked out of a Vancouver-area Facebook group called Human Milk For Human Babies after allegedly selling some of the breast milk that had been donated to her. At the time, Health Canada told HuffPost Canada that donation of breast milk is discouraged, and its sale is illegal.
“It is the responsibility of manufacturers and importers to comply with all applicable legislative and regulatory requirements in Canada. It is illegal to sell a food that is not safe for consumption,” a spokesperson said.
The agency wants to remind people that milk banks, which follow strict procedures including donor screenings and bacteriological and viral testing, are the only safe way to access donated breast milk. But there are only four milk banks in the country, in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. It’s also only available by prescription, and priority is given to high-risk babies in neonatal intensive care units.
If you feel you don’t have enough breast milk to feed your baby, Health Canada suggests talking to your doctor about your options.
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