Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Christine Bartels has spent more than $25,000 to feed breast milk to her baby.

What’s free for most mothers has come at a high cost for the 44-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., mother, who wanted her adopted son, Milo, to have the undisputed health benefits of breast milk. So she paid the Mothers’ Milk Bank in San Jose, Calif., $3 an ounce for donated breast milk.

That’s nearly $100 a day.

A growing number of parents are going to great lengths to feed their babies breast milk, buying it from licensed banks, accepting it from strangers and even purchasing it online.

“I decided this was one of my top priorities. I cut back on fancy baby toys and fancy baby clothes,” said Miss Bartels, a single mother and analyst for Google Inc. who fed her 10-month-old nothing but breast milk for his first nine months, three months longer than the minimum that doctors recommend. “My general sense is why mess with nature? It’s the optimal nutrition.”

Doctors are alarmed, however, that parents who are trying to help their babies actually could be threatening their health by using unscreened milk, whether from the Internet or friends, that can transmit diseases, including AIDS.

The American Academy of Pediatrics supports the use of banked milk, as does La Leche League International, the world’s largest breast-feeding resource. For mothers who can’t breast-feed or afford banked milk, the group advises working with a doctor who can help screen donors.

Despite advances in infant formula, the academy calls breast milk “uniquely superior for infant feeding,” citing both immunological and developmental benefits. Doctors recommend against cow’s milk until age 1, because it is difficult to digest and doesn’t meet babies’ nutritional needs.

An increasing amount of research shows that breast milk reduces the risk or severity of diseases, from bacterial meningitis to respiratory-tract infections. And some studies suggest that it decreases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, diabetes, obesity and asthma.

Susanna Benningfield, 40, of San Francisco — who lost her own milk supply when doctors switched her infant son, Max, to fortified formula when he was failing to gain weight — is a grateful milk-bank customer.

“Once we switched him to formula, he was a miserable wreck,” she said. “He couldn’t sleep — he had red circles under his eyes and would wake up racked in pain.”

She lobbied successfully to return Max to breast milk.

“It was like a miracle. Within 48 hours, I had my happy baby back,” she said.

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