In a startling discovery that upends conventional parenting wisdom, the journal Pediatrics is reporting today that if you purchase breast milk from various strangers over the Internet to feed your baby, that milk may be contaminated with bacteria. The article abstract explains:
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.
How can this be? Breast milk, as everyone of a certain class and educational level knows, is infallibly wholesome. There is absolutely nothing you can do for your baby that is more important than feeding it this particular bodily secretion, no matter who is secreting it or where or how. The New York Times reports:
Rachel Holtzman, 31, a writer who lives in Brooklyn, had breast reduction surgery that unexpectedly left her unable to lactate. After giving birth to Levi, now 4 ½ months old, she turned to a network of women in Park Slope who were willing to donate their breast milk. It has been a largely positive experience.
“We worried at first,” she said. “We wanted to be mindful that the donors were healthy, but there was never a moment when we were afraid. We’ve had the milk of about 30 women and have never had a problem.”
There are, the Times notes, official breast-milk banks that sell clean, pasteurized milk from screened donors. But most of that milk is delivered by prescription to "premature infants with significant medical complications."
So what are you supposed to do if you are having trouble producing enough breast milk for your own healthy, non-premature infant? If only there were some way to give your baby the nutrition it needs without feeding it grimy milk scraped together from dozens of strangers.
Oh, right, there is: it's called formula.
Yes, formula. It's true that there is a long and bitter war going on between the menacing exploitative Big Formula industry and the people who promote breastfeeding, and that in that big struggle, Big Formula is evil. Formula companies are cynical and corrupt, and they try to trick people around the world into unnecessarily feeding babies their product, wasting money and endangering the public health.
But in this conflict between formula and breastfeeding, being in the educated urban childbearing class is like living in a remote mountain village that's been captured by fanatical Maoist insurgents. However righteous the greater breastfeeding cause may be, up close it is cruel and insane, trapped in rigid sloganeering ideology: Breast is best. Breast is natural.
If breastfeeding hurts, you must be doing it wrong, because breastfeeding is natural. If your baby is still hungry, you must be feeding it wrong, because breastfeeding is naturally designed to give your baby the best food. If the pain and the baby's unhappiness make you feel like you should try feeding your baby some other way, you are deliberately harming your baby by not being willing to give it the best.
(If your newborn baby's eyes turn yellow from breast-milk jaundice, that is a totally natural side effect of feeding it the best possible food, and not at all a reason to feed it anything different.)
And so you have someone giving the detailed medical history of her glands to the New York Times, to explain why she feels compelled to round up milk from people she doesn't even know. Milk that has been collected with breast-pumping machines, frozen in freezing machines, and distributed via networks of people on communications machines, so that it can be mechanically warmed up and delivered to the baby in a bottle, because nothing is more important than feeding your baby naturally.
Rhyming catchiness aside, breast is not best. It is not inherently superlative, for all people and in all cases. What it is, generally speaking, is better, relative to the other options. If all other things are equal. Often they're not. Yet the baby comes out fine. If you are a person who has the energy and drive to hunt down sacramental breast milk on the Internet, you are a person who does not need to worry about the harm that a bottle of formula might do to your baby.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.