Jessica Roland sits on her couch, gently caressing her baby’s stomach as she expresses milk into a breast pump.
"He drinks a lot, but I produce so much more," Roland said of her 4-month-old child. She pumps 20 ounces in each sitting, temporarily relieving her engorged breasts. "I think I’m lucky to have this much milk, and I know other mothers aren’t so fortunate."
So Roland, who lives in Mission Viejo, posted an ad on onlythebreast.com to sell what she describes as "creamy milk" from a "healthy mom." Within two days, she was shipping 100 ounces of frozen breast milk to a mother and infant for $200.
With increased awareness of breast milk’s health benefits, many parents are looking to wet nurses and purchasing the milk to feed their babies. Some attribute this rise to the U.S. Surgeon General’s recent report encouraging breastfeeding.
But while the report helped spark action, the increase in networking brought about two new problems. More parents are purchasing breast milk from strangers without screening, and more mothers are passing up needy milk banks to privately sell this demanded commodity.
Like many mothers on social networks, Roland wasn’t screened and her breast milk went untested.
"I had a blood test done six months ago,” she said. "If I was the one buying someone’s breast milk I would want to know that they were healthy too."
Pauline Sakamoto, director of Mother’s Milk Bank of California, said this type of "black market" is very dangerous considering what breast milk should be tested for.
"Many moms are succumbing to this casual sharing without knowing who the other person is," Sakamoto said. "This is not just neighbor-to-neighbor distribution anymore."
Sakamoto is concerned about the various illnesses an infant can be exposed to from unscreened breast milk. They include HIV and Hepatitis B and C. Even "Eats on Feets," a Facebook group dedicated to connecting babies and breast milk, warns mothers of the dangers.
And while mothers like Roland may provide a six-month-old blood test to customers, Sakamoto stressed that it is not enough. The 37-year-old milk bank in San Jose has not had any disease transmissions since opening, and Sakamoto points to their strict testing process.
"A lot of moms will think that donors just get blood tests at our milk bank," she said. "We screen donors, and check for all sorts of diseases, but we also pasteurize the milk."
Alice Toth, who runs Milkin’ Mamas with her twin sister Keri Pommerenk in Huntington Beach, stresses the importance of testing. Her company doesn’t collect milk from donors but serves as a liaison between donors and Prolacta, a for-profit milk bank which tests donated human milk before it is fed to premature babies.
Examiners from Milkin’ Mamas arrange a blood draw and visit donors at home. The examiners check for viruses and recreational drug use every four months. Prolacta goes even one step further and compares the mother’s DNA from a swab to the milk that she sends in.
There currently isn’t a tax deduction for breast milk donations, and while Prolacta has been criticized for not compensating mothers, Toth sees the logic behind it.
"If they’re paying women, are the women going to be as honest?" she asked. "They want it to be from the goodness of their heart. Getting paid is a huge debate. I know there are a lot of women posting ads online to sell breast milk, but are they actually selling it? I don’t know."
But the cost milk banks charge for screened breast milk—$3 to $5 an ounce—has prompted parents to seek milk elsewhere.
Pumping for Profit
Bridget Larzeleri of Mission Viejo sells and donates her breast milk. A mother of four grown children, the 46-year-old soon-to-be grandmother began selling and donating milk after she gave birth to her surrogate son a year ago. She started out shipping 300 to 450 ounces to The Hamptons in New York twice a week to her son's two fathers, one of whom is a prominent Hollywood TV and film producer.
Promising to provide them with breast milk for two years, Larzeleri would pump an abundant amount of milk. Because of the rigorous screening she went through to become a surrogate mother, she has the proper documents that parents would request upon seeking breast milk. So she gave the idea a try.
Selling her milk at $1.50 an ounce, Larzeleri would make $300 a week. But these days, she pumps 1,300 ounces a week and donates what doesn’t go to her surrogate son to two terminally ill babies and two infants whose mothers lack the ability to produce.
"I would love to be one of those moms that makes a lot of money doing this," she said.
Many lactating mothers, like Roland, are in the business of selling their milk for $2 an ounce. Newborns require between 16 and 30 ounces a day. Roland hopes that her latest customer becomes a regular, because she says she can make over $1,000 a month from selling exclusively to her.
Larzeleri is one of many lactating mothers who chooses not to donate to milk banks.
"They charge parents too much money," she said. "Insurance doesn’t cover it so the cost drives them away."
Sakamoto said casual sharing is one of the many reasons that milk banks are running low. The demand for breast milk, the revolving door of lactating donors, the lack awareness, and the potential to make a substantial amount of money privately selling breast milk all contribute to the shortage.
"None of the milk banks can do $3 an ounce, nobody can," she said. "It costs a lot of money to man the phones, screen the donors, test and pasteurize the milk, ship it overnight and keep up with demand."
Mothers Milk Bank struggles to keep up with the growing need as more doctors prescribe breast milk to infants and fewer women are donating.
"We have a difficult time completing the orders for all babies," Sakamoto said. "We just don’t have the volume we need."
Both Sakamoto and Toth stressed that increasing milk donor awareness would help the milk bank supply.
Toth and her sister only learned about milk banks when Toth’s son developed an allergy to her breast milk.
"If we didn’t know about donating milk to milk banks, then there are a lot of people who don’t know about it," she said.
Toth said that many mothers contact Milkin’ Mamas because they don’t want any liability associated with people independently buying and purchasing milk.
"Women want to find a good home for their milk," she said. "And not only is donating to milk banks safe, but it helps so many babies."