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Can't breastfeed, and can't afford donor milk from safe milk banks? Before you turn to online milk-share networks, find out what bacteria you could be feeding your baby.

Do you have a baby, have you ever had a baby, or have you ever heard of babies? Then you've probably been confronted with the erroneous concept that “breast is best” when it comes to infant nutrition.

"Breast is not best," the lactivist will be quick to correct you. "Breast is normal."Formula is inferior.

The word lactivist speaks for itself, I assume, even if you happen to hear it for the first time — lactation activist.

This phenomenon rose out of a post-war world that promoted formula as a scientific victory and a less burdensome way to feed an infant. Even if the mother had no trouble breastfeeding. Yes, formula saves lives, but only in case of genuine need.

Like its counterpart Big Pharma, Big Formula is out to steal money from unsuspecting mothers and health from babies who have no idea what they are sucking on. At the very least, new parents are likely to be given free formula samples at the hospital, to lure them in. At worst, hospital staff will sabotage your breastfeeding relationship by taking your baby to the nursery and stealth-feeding it formula, while you're catching some sleep.

This is the world that lactivists warn us about.

Never mind that the tide has turned in recent decades. Formula samples are banned in many hospitals, and staff lactation consultants might check that you there is a genuine need to feed formula before giving you any. Studies that show the benefits of breastfeeding — or I should say “the disadvantages of formula feeding” in lactivist speak — circulate all the time.

Formula feeding might, off the top of my head, make your baby obese, give it asthma, ruin its immune system, give it diabetes, and make it less smart. 

Parents on the other side of the so-called mommy wars might have a hard time understanding what the big deal is here, but those who have committed themselves to "natural parenting" will know exactly what I am talking about. 

In the "natural parenting" or "attachment parenting" world, you do everything you can to give your baby the benefits of stuff like homebirth, babywearing, co-sleeping, cloth diapering, and of course breastfeeding. 

No, I'm not against those things. I did them all. I have two kids, and they were nursed for a combined four years. I had no breastfeeding problems and nursed everywhere — in my home, at the park, at the supermarket, and even in a European national parliament. Oh, never in a restroom, of course. That's denigrating. 

Some mothers do have breastfeeding problems, though. The pressure they feel can be immense if they've immersed themselves in the world of natural parenting. Isn't formula there especially for you, if you don't have milk for your baby? No, the lactivist will remind you: formula isn't even the second-best option.

The World Health Organization lists a clear infant-food quality hierarchy:

  1. Breast milk straight from your own breasts
  2. Your own pumped breast milk given from a bottle
  3. Donor breast milk
  4. Formula
As you can see, formula is the most inferior option you have. It's in this climate that the online breast milk exchange sites that are making headlines right now popped up.

Mothers who can't breastfeed or pump are fighting to at least offer their babies that "third-best option". 

The problem with donor breast milk from quality, safe breast milk banks is that it is often reserved the for prematurely born babies and that it is rather costly even if it's available — around $6 an ounce, and since a one-month old baby easily needs 25 ounces a day, that adds up rather quickly.

Peer-to-peer breast milk networks may seem like the ideal solution. There, mothers are eager to give their excess breast milk away for free, or if they want compensation they charge much less at about $1.50 an ounce. A new study reveals breast milk exchange networks aren't as good as they seem to be, and that the donor milk you are so happy to give to your baby might well be ridden with bacteria. 

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