By KIA MORGAN SMITH
Lord knows I understand the desperation some moms have to get breast milk to their babies when they can’t produce it themselves. I was in that boat with my youngest child, Jo-Jo, who, after a series of appointments with our pediatrician and several specialists, was revealed to have a severe problem processing milk. Outside of my breast milk, baby boy couldn’t keep any milk down. Not dairy, not soy, not rice milk, not almond. So feeding him formula wasn’t an option, and despite my willingness to milk myself like a cow, my breast milk had already gone dry. No matter how desperate I was to get the good stuff to my Jo-Jo, I couldn’t.
But apparently, there are some moms who are willing to by-any-means-necessary it to get breast milk to their babies, and ABC News reports that women all over the country are now cashing in on what people are calling a mother’s natural liquid gold: human breast milk. A month’s worth can earn a seller anywhere between $300 and $1,200. To compare, a month’s worth of formula costs an average of $200.
Making $1,200 a month pumping your supply is a nice cushiony stay-at-home gig, I must admit. Some women put their breast milk up for sale on Onlythebreast.com, a Craigslist of sorts where lactating moms advertising their breast milk for sale are sought out by moms willing to buy it. The site, which bills itself as “a community for moms to buy and sell natural breast milk,” lists about 300 sellers and 50 buyers.
There are actual milk banks that screen milk, too. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) screens and sells breast milk to mothers. Bank officials say the milk itself is free (in some areas, there is a $3.50 charge), but buyers pay for the screening, pasteurizing and shipping. In some cases, health-insurance plans will pay for breast milk.
The feds have not yet outlawed selling or sharing breast milk, but California, New York and Maryland require that anyone providing breast milk to babies other than their own, must have a license, and that includes milk banks.
However there are lots of online communities like Onlythebreast.com where moms are selling unregulated milk and this is where, in my opinion, it gets dicey. Let’s be real: There are some real creeps out there who just want the money. They could have a drug needle in one and a breast pump on their 36 D shooting up poison while pumping out juice that will make them a real cash cow! Would I feed that to my baby? No thank you ma’am.
Why would I want milk from a perfect stranger who I have no documentation on? All kinds of questions would be packed in those bottles: Are the donating moms clean? Do they wash well? What do they eat and put into their bodies? What diseases could they possibly already have in their body that they could pass on to my vulnerable baby? How do buying moms know whether the selling moms are heavy drinkers, smokers or drug addicts? These are normal questions I think most moms would ask if they are considering buying breast milk over the Internet.
Of course I believe breast milk is great milk; I breast-fed all of my children. But in the cases of buying it over the internet, I would argue that the milk doesn’t always come from a good source. Here’s the risk and the rub: buying breast milk with no other oversight besides the honor system could run serious health risks for the babies of mothers who buy it.
Truth is, there is no surefire system to ensure that vulnerable and fragile babies get the good breast milk they truly need from mothers other than their own. I wish there was. But I wouldn’t trust giving someone’s unregulated body fluids to my baby. Would you?
Kia Morgan Smith, author of the delightful children’s book, Goony Goo-Goo and Ga-Ga Too, is a passionate and dedicated educator and former award-winning education reporter from Philadelphia. She has five kids and balances life like nobody’s business all of which she chronicles on her blog,CincoMom. She lives with her husband and their family in Atlanta.
Other great MyBrownBaby posts on breast feeding:
- Dear Michelle Bachmann: Shut Up and Sit Down
- Stick To It: Lessons On How To Keep Breastfeeding, Despite the Odds
- Nipples and Ninny: An African American Mom’s Breastfeeding Journey
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.
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Great and informative article! But I’m with you. Although I totally support breastfeeding too I am just too leery about accepting a stranger’s milk-even if it is screened. My baby is worth more than that and I’d just have to find another way if I couldn’t produce the milk. I don’t trust it.
Three years ago, I had a surgery to reduce my breast from an I cup to a DD. Being only 5 foot 1, you can imagine the issues I had carrying around those puppies. However, when my doctor told me I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed, I almost did not go through with the surgery. I do plan on having children, and I want them to have the best of everything, including breast milk. In the end I had the surgery because I realized if I was already naturally an I cup, my breast would most likely be even bigger after pregnancy. So now I am seriously considering purchasing breast milk when I do have kids, and if I do, I will definitely be going through an organization that screens the donors and the milk.
Wow Miss P, I’m glad you did have the surgery too, I think I would have done the same. I can’t imagine all the back problems you were probably suffering through. And I’m sure had you not gotten it, your breasts would have gotten much bigger. I hope everything works out for you. Check out the org I mentioned in the story. I’m sure they can help you with questions about their screening process. Thanks.
We had a breast milk donor for my little baby. It did wonders for her health. I will add that I knew the donor personally….and she offered it too us as the person she was pumping for didn’t need milk anymore. She pretty much fed my baby for her whole first year (and her two babies too!) My babies are adopted and the first two had formula. I can’t even say that if I could breast feed that I would….but this circumstance seemed to just fall in my lap so I took it. Our milk maiden was a donor–meaning she donated her milk to us. We paid for storage bags for her to pump it in. We could never repay her for her time and energy…..geez, I don’t even think I want to know how much time it took her to feed all these babies! AND, she has another one on the way!!! I would not probably ever pay for breastmilk–and certainly not from somebody who isn’t screened, although milk banks are so costly I don’t even know how anyone could afford it! (Especially if its and adoption situation–which you are probably already tapped out of finances!) Their are milk donor sites all over the internet. They do have milk testing kits too….I guess I certainly wouldn’t trust someone who was charging for their milk. I know we are all in need of extra income, but the concept seems kind of creepy. If you have extra to help someone out, I get it….
So my baby is a real live recipient of another woman’s breast milk. It worked for us–and I was kind of emotional when the last bag was used–and happy at the same time to finally get my freezer space back! :0) She lived a few hours away and we had some angel delivery people and made a few runs ourselves. It was quite the family adventure! Never a dull moment at our house!
Jodi I would probably use breast milk from someone close to me just like you did. And it certainly does a world of wonders. My oldest daughter hardly EVER has gone to the doctor for an illness. Now my other kids I probably could have breastfed a little longer because they get colds galore! I am so glad your situation worked for you! Thanks.
This is an interesting perspective. I, also, would be hesitant to buy another mother’s milk, but I am very excited and happy about the free, informal milk sharing that takes place on parenting boards and through “Human Milk for Human babies” (http://www.hm4hb.net/). While there are risks with unregulated human milk sharing, whether or not the other woman “washes well” is not among them. (There are reliable resources that discuss what can & cannot be transmitted through human milk.)
I find it very interesting that I rarely hear people discuss the risks associated with formula feeding, which is the popular alternative when mothers cannot or do not breastfeed. Perhaps you could write an article on the assumed safety of artificial milk. Some of the risks are discussed here: http://www.infactcanada.ca/pdf/14-Risks-Small.pdf; http://www.mamadearest.ca/en/info/risk_and_costs.htm; http://www.breastfeeding.com/reading_room/what_should_know_formula.html; http://drjaygordon.com/pediatricks/startingout/supplement.html; http://www.lactivist.com/dangform.html.
The web pages mentioned above talk about the normal risks associated with artificial milk. They don’t even address the tampering that has happened in stores or how often people do not properly prepare formula in a way that kills the bacteria. (Did you know that you’re supposed to boil the water to get it hot enough to kill the bacteria, THEN cool the water and use it? I’ve seen lots of people use room temperature water to prepare formula.)
Also, I’d love to see a thoughtful discussion on why more people do not rely on human milk banks. Did you know that paragraphs 18 & 19 of the WHO “Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding” recommend artificial milk as a 4th option after breastfeeding–the other choices in between are the own mother’s expressed breastmilk and milk from another lactating mother? Read about it here: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2003/9241562218.pdf.
Human milk can be a life-saver, particularly for premature babies who cannot digest infant formula. I’d also like to read more about how wet nursing and cross-nursing was a life saving, normal occurance for hundreds of thousands of years before there was the option of receiving free formula samples from the drug companies that manufacture artificial milk. Here’s an amazing modern day story: http://www.cnn.com/2009/LIVING/12/01/marquette.moms.nursing.moses/index.html
Finally, it would be fascinating to hear about how difficult it is to get milk from milk banks and how the supply of human milk in those milk banks is so low: http://www.care2.com/causes/health-policy/blog/even-neil-patrick-harris-has-trouble-getting-donor-milk/.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this article. I’d love to hear more about some other aspects to this important issue.
Oh, heck nah!
I nursed both of mine for a year. While I understand why others would choose this option, I would not.
I hear ya Honeysmoke!
I’m adopting an infant and plan to try to breastfeed the child myself with the help of a lactation consultant (yup many adoptive mothers do it), but if that doesn’t work then I do plan to make use of the certified milk bank. No way I would use someone I don’t know, unscreened, found over the internet, that is a recipe for disaster. But it isn’t fair that because a child is adopted they don’t have access to the same healthy resource has babies who are raised by their biological mothers. So I’ll do what I have to, as long as it is safe.
@TJ- you are so right. It isn’t fair adopted babies can’t get breast milk. In your case I understand you wanting to us a milk bank. But I say stay away from those online milk communities. It’s so surprising how popular they are and how comfortable people feel accepting the milk. I say do what YOU feel is best for you and your baby. Just research. Thanks for commenting.
I can see your point and don’t know what I would do if I had the need and opportunity. I can tell you that the formula–organic, but still canned formula–our youngest daughter had to eat was pretty gross, and while I have some faith in the company, most formula companies aren’t reputable and who knows what is in there… so in the end unless your child is getting it “straight from the tap,” who knows what they are getting.
@Kia – We discussed this on the Today Show back in December when the FDA came out with a warning against the practice of purchasing or using “donated” breastmilk from online sources.
Here’s the link:
HMBANA is a good resource for moms and a certified milk bank is what I would recommend for people who choose this option. Yes, breast is best, and we have to stop the stigma in our community about breastfeeding. Even with that, not everyone can breastfeed and it is important that all moms feel supported, whatever choice they make.
I’m glad we’re having these conversations in our community.
I agree. Thanks for the link and for adding your insight Dr. Ivor. 🙂
i would absolutely buy breastmilk from a screened source – and there’s a good chance i would accept donated milk from what i considered a trusted source – sure, there are risks (many which can be avoided by flash-heating to kill viruses, etc.) but i would venture to say that any mother who is going through the trouble/hassle of pumping extra milk and donating is probably healthy, eating well, not smoking, etc. – breastfeeding is HARD and takes a lot of work to keep up a good supply – and i have yet to meet a mom who thought pumping was fun!
knowing the time and effort it takes to keep up a good supply, it is HIGHLY unlikely that the drug addict who is hard up enough to sell her breastmilk for cash would even be able to – they would have to be healthy enough to produce milk, have a good pump (that they haven’t hocked for the cash), bags to pump into (which don’t come cheap), a freezer to freeze the milk, etc.
i have donated milk to a friend and i intend to donate my milk through a milk share program while traveling away from my son in August – i’m still breastfeeding my 16 month old and he’ll only take it from the tap, so in order to keep up my supply i’ll have to pump while i’m away from him – there is no reason to dump all that milk if someone can use it – i’m a fairly healthy eater though i do enjoy the occasional cup of coffee, alcoholic beverage and sugar-laden treat – and i’ll be completely upfront about all of these things when i offer my milk
yes, plenty of children have been raised on formula and turned out fine – but the majority of them shouldn’t have had to – breastfeeding should be the rule, not the exception – but we live in a society that makes it EXTREMELY difficult and provides us with pitfalls at every turn
Beautifully said, Diantheâ€”thanks for the food for thought!
Dianthe – Agree with you all the way – there was a time my 4 year old was hospitalized with an unknown infection – everyone in my family just brought the baby to me in the waiting room and I breast fed while my husband and I shared the 24 hour care of my older one in the hospital. There was no choice – by 3 months he wouldn’t touch a bottle! Best to you, Barbara
Many women have needed the help of other women to provide breast milk to feed their babies. I would only do this through a certified organization, etc. I know they exist, as many of the hospitals here coordinate such programs. Breast milk does provide the baby with antibodies that he/she may not get from cow’s milk or soy milk. I did not breast feed my first child 34 years ago, because I didn’t know anyone who was doing so (I regret it), I did breast feed my second child 30 years ago and I can not believe that this is still up for discussion. Obviously, if there is a health problem for the mother, where she is unable to breast feed that is one thing, other than that breast feeding is the most natural and easiest way to go. You just carry that nourishment with you everywhere, trains, planes, autombiles, Disneyland, beaches, lakes, all over the world…so easy, my breast fed child never drank from a bottle, he just learned to use a cup early while still being breast fed! Such a small time in the life of your child.
i too would be weary of purchasing milk from a mother. receiving donated milk, however, i would do. the difference? when money is involved, people can do crazy things. donated milk from a mom you have met, and seen her nurse her own sweet chubby child…why not? as long as i can see a recent blood test i would be fine. the risk is minimal (as it rarely happens that a mother will pass along an infection to her own child) and perhaps the potential risk of using formula (or rather, the potential risks of NOT breastfeeding) is quite a bit higher.
Buying and selling breastmilk are not the only options for obtaining breastmilk for your baby. There are grassroots ‘organizations’ on facebook, such as Human Milk 4 Human Babies, or Eats on Feets, that are places where moms can connect with other moms and donate or accept breastmilk for free. This eliminates the monetary motivation. It also means that if you were looking for milk for your baby, you could connect with a mom(s) in your local area, who you could then meet with in person and have as much testing done as you want- the agreement and details are entirely between and up to the moms involved. Most of the blood work you would want is done during pregnancy too, and sometimes just that is used. Or sometimes a receiving mom will ask for additional tests. Also, who you choose to connect with is entirely up to you. Some moms accept milk only locally, and some accept milk that’s shipped across the country. (These sites even have helpful information on safe handling of breastmilk.)
I donated milk to a friend after she returned to work and, due to being unable to pump sufficiently, lost her milk, and it was a wonderful experience. I am acquainted with another mom who obtained donor milk through Eats on Feets for her adopted daughter, from multiple local moms. From what I have witnessed, milk sharing fosters a beautiful bond of trust and community between moms, something that I think has been lost for a long time. For the record, I have no ties to these organizations, nor any other reason to promote them other than I simply think they are a wonderful option that everyone should be made aware of in case they wish to pursue that route.
This is such a wonderful way for us moms to band together and help each other- without profit or questionable motivation. I believe that most moms are smart enough to handle something like that on their own. And really, what are the chances that a mom who has gone to the effort and work to breastfeed her own children, is going to poison that milk, or otherwise intentionally cause any babies, including her own, to become ill. Yes, there is still some risk (like if donor mom’s husband is cheating and exposes her to something for example), but there are risks to formula feeding as well (think of all the recalls in recent history). I believe we moms can be trusted to measure those risks and make these decisions ourselves, for us and our families. Please remember that just because something skeeves you out, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be an option for someone else who doesn’t have a problem with it. We each have to make the decisions that are best for our own families. We can’t make those decisions for anyone else.
I’ll have to agree with Anna’s comment above. I believe that with proper screening procedures, it is possible to foster a positive relationship with breast milk donors.
I was a gestational surrogate in 2007. My intended mother was working on inducing lactation so that she could breastfeed her son, so in the latter half of the third trimester, I was able to find a recipient for my breastmilk. I have always been a heavy producer, and I wanted the opportunity to donate and not have my post-pregnancy lactation go to waste. Thankfully, I was able to find a recipient quickly. Granted, we had a prior relationship established as we were both posters and moderators on the online surrogacy community that we belonged to, so we knew each other and already had a relationship of trust. We were due just days apart from each other, and she needed donated breast milk to supplement her own breastfeeding. She knew ahead of time that she would likely have an inadequate supply due to hormonal imbalances and a prior breast reduction surgery.
Despite already having a trusting relationship, we still found it both necessary for me to provide documentation from my OB/GYN proving that I had cleared all screening tests for STDs and that I was in good health through my pregnancy. After her doctor approved my records, we both settled into what we knew would be a positive experience. Thanks to my donation, she was able to keep her newborn daughter on breastmilk for her entire first year.
Accepting breastmilk from donors, especially ones from whom there isn’t already a relationship established, is definitely not for everyone. The pros and cons should be thoroughly examined in the decision-making process, and getting the support of your doctor and understanding screening procedures can surely help foster a good donor/recipient experience if the decision to accept or donate breastmilk is made.