With health advocates urging women to breastfeed in order to give children the best possible start in life – human breast milk provides nutrition and boosts babies’ immune systems – some women who can’t breastfeed for a variety of reasons are turning to hospital milk banks and informal sharing networks.
Doctors groups say sharing human breast milk outside of the healthcare system can pose dangers to babies, but advocates for breastfeeding say mothers should be able to weigh these risks for themselves without further state regulation.
Two bills aimed at ensuring the safety of human breast milk have received support from the professional association for obstetricians and gynecologists. But the New Jersey Breastfeeding Coalition opposes both bills, fearing that they will serve as barriers to breastfeeding.
The bills would require the state Department of Health to license milk banks — which process, store and distribute donated breast milk for hospitals – and would launch a public-awareness campaign to caution pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers about the dangers of “casual milk sharing,” a term for the informal sharing of breast milk outside of milk banks.
The New Jersey Section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which supports the measures, warns that informally shared milk may not be properly stored and can contain harmful bacteria and viruses.
The bill that would license milk banks, S-1209/A-1858, would regulate milk that’s obtained with a prescription from a doctor.
Ellen Maughan, a lactation consultant and a member of the breastfeeding coalition, said the concern is that state regulation of milk banks could discourage the launch of a nonprofit milk bank in the state. New Jersey doesn’t have a milk bank, so hospitals in the state use milk from 15 out-of-state milk banks.
“Today, existing milk banks are struggling to recruit more donors to meet the increasing demand for donor milk for seriously ill infants,” Maughan said. “And we’re concerned that imposing an additional layer of regulation on future milk banks may also create extra costs which would increase the fee for donor milk, which often is not covered by health insurance.”
Bill sponsor Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said the bill is only intended to ensure that families obtain breast milk through safe channels. She added that she’s a proponent of breastfeeding, but just wants to make sure that milk sharing is safe.
“If we’re going to have milk banks where there is sharing of breast milk, it should be regulated by the health department just to prevent any inappropriate sharing,” Weinberg said.
Researchers have also raised concerns about whether milk sold over the Internet is what’s advertised. A recent article in the journal Pediatrics found that more than 11 of 102 samples of human breast milk sold over the Internet also contained cow’s milk.
Breastfeeding advocates also cite the cost to the state of both licensing milk banks and conducting a public-awareness campaign, which would be undertaken under S-1208/A-1857.
But the nonprofit Office of Legislative Services estimated in 2013 that the cost of a public-awareness campaign would be minimal while the cost of milk bank licensure is uncertain but could be offset in any event by fees that the bill allows the state to charge the operators of milk banks.
The breastfeeding coalition would rather see the effort proposed for a public-awareness campaign focused on the risks of informal milk sharing instead go toward promoting breastfeeding.
Maughan said mothers who use shared milk have likely done their own research on the donor and weighed the benefits and risks, adding that she’s not aware of any New Jersey babies becoming ill through shared breast milk. She also said that the awareness campaign proposed under the bill could unnecessarily raise broader concerns about breastfeeding.
But Weinberg expressed doubt that any mothers would associate the particular dangers of informal milk sharing with the general safety of breastfeeding.
“Women are perfectly capable of discerning the benefits of breastfeeding and the negatives of sharing breast milk,” she said. “I am not concerned that this is going to confuse women who are breastfeeding. I want the public to be better informed.”
Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex) noted that some mothers are buying milk on the Internet, posing a real risk for babies. “What’s the harm, if the awareness campaign is done in a manner that actually promotes breastfeeding?” Vitale said.
Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) said she would support a campaign that included cautions but had an overall message in support of breastfeeding. She abstained from voting on the public-awareness bill but said she may support it if changes are made.
Similar bills were passed by the Assembly in 2013 but weren’t considered by the Senate. This session, the Senate committee with oversight of the legislation acted first, with the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee releasing both bills yesterday on bipartisan votes. The Assembly versions have been referred to the Assembly Women and Children Committee.