The soft hum of a small, battery-operated breast pump was almost completely drowned out by two toddlers pulling a plastic basketball hoop out of their bedroom into the tiny living room. Outside the living room’s sliding glass door, rain poured down onto the apartment complex’s deserted parking lot. It was June 2017, and Andrea Santiago, then a 28-year-old mother of four, sat sideways on her couch, which was covered with a dark brown slipcover in her two-bedroom apartment located near New Brunswick, New Jersey. As Santiago, a member of an online community where women buy and sell breastmilk, collected what she pumped in two sterile baby bottles, her then 6-month-old daughter, Zaylie, sat quietly in an infant seat on the floor. Santiago’s three other children rushed through the small apartment. It was only a few minutes past 8 a.m., but the apartment was filled with commotion. The toddlers, then aged 2 and 4, forgetting about the basketball net, attempted to play a video game, while then 12-year-old Eric occasionally brought things to his mother from the kitchen just a few feet away.
In that same kitchen sat a deep freezer. At first glance, the freezer seemed to be filled only with hamburger patties, waffles and other frozen food. But underneath that sat close to 1,000 ounces of frozen breast milk — milk that Santiago hoped to sell online to earn money for her family and to help families who can’t produce breast milk for their own babies.
There are many reasons families may choose to seek out and feed their children donor human milk from the internet. Some mothers don't produce enough milk, or produce none at all, for their children; some children are adopted or born through surrogates who are not producing milk; some parents seek it out to feed their sick children, and others want milk to further supplement what they are producing.
Among the parents seeking a donor milk supply are Jedediah Ilany and his husband, Ben. The Manhattan couple has two children who were born through surrogacy. Ilany was dependent on breast milk from strangers to feed his infant son Isaac, because Isaac’s surrogate did not provide breast milk. He would meet donors online who have extra milk and travel around the New York City area to collect the milk in person.
If I run out of milk, what do I do? Everything with just her health would really go downhill… she’s so fragile.
Ilany briefly got milk from a milk bank, but it was too costly and not a sustainable, ongoing way to feed a child, he says. “The milk banks are not set up for someone to feed their child on. They’re set up more for medical need more than anything.” So, he turned to the web to find milk.
“This is it,” Ilany says. “This is their one time they’re going to be tiny and growing, and I agree that breast milk is best. If I can get it, then I thought, ‘I’m willing to do anything.’”
More than a thousand miles away in Conroe, Texas, Marie Clark also turned to private breast milk donors she found over the internet in 2010 after a milk bank would no longer supply her daughter, Ava, with breast milk. Ava, now 9 years old, has spinal muscular atrophy type 1, a terminal illness, and she is fed 12 to 15 ounces of breast milk a day through a feeding tube and dependent on breast milk for her quality of life.
“If I run out of milk, what do I do? Everything with just her health would really go downhill… she’s so fragile, and it’s such a huge part of her diet and to keep her healthy,” Clark tells Romper.
Clark, who has used about 20 breast milk donors since 2010, says social media has been essential in helping her find the breast milk. “Oh God. I don’t think I’d be able to find it without,” she says.
She met donor, Daniela Thompson, a stay-at-home mother of three from outside of Houston, on the Facebook page, “Human Milk for Human Babies.”
I’m 24/7 either breastfeeding or pumping with a few hours in between, if that.
Thompson donated to Clark twice, giving her about 800 ounces of milk. Clark paid her $175 and a $40 box of diapers.
The mother of the sick child usually won’t pay for milk, but she offered Thompson money because she found out that Thompson usually donates to a milk bank where she gets $1 an ounce for her donated milk.
“It’s always been donation-based. I know there are some sites that sell it. I don’t do that because I don’t trust it,” Clark says. “I know it sounds bad, but what if a woman is really hard up and just waters it down or something?”
At the time, Thompson, the donor, was she pumping her milk five times a day and breastfeeding for her son. “I’m 24/7 either breastfeeding or pumping with a few hours in between, if that,” she says. The milk she pumps goes to donations to the milk bank, or directly to others like Clark.
“For those mothers that aren’t able to produce, and if they are searching for a mother locally that could give them breast milk, they’re doing what they think is best,” says Thompson. “They still have their child’s best interest in mind.”
The growth of the internet has created a platform where a precious bodily fluid, breast milk, is donated, traded and bought among strangers. All over the country, families are visiting online sites, Facebook pages and groups, and online marketplaces to seek out milk from unknown mothers to feed their children.
“You're two gay dads and you decide you want to breastfeed your babies, what do you do? Do you go to door to door? Do you go to the hospital and wait for women to come out and say, ‘Hey, are you going to use your milk?’ There's no way to find someone that has a surplus or is willing to share,” says Ilany. “This is, to me, one of the great boons of social media and why it's so incredible and one of the beautiful things that it can do is connect people.”
The internet has created a modern network that allows parents from different regions, economic backgrounds and family structures to intersect, all with a common goal: to benefit from breast milk. However, some people are concerned that the informal structure of the network, lack of oversight, and monetary incentives, could lead to contaminated milk being fed to infants.
I would say I've only seen this kind of pop up in the last five years and it's probably with social media.
Since the 1990s, as technology has advanced with the popularity of battery-operated breast pumps, breastfeeding mothers are now able to produce and store more milk than in past generations, which, when shared, provides more babies with the health benefits of breast milk. In the past, milk banks were the only solution for families seeking donor milk from strangers, but banks are often costly, with milk costing more than $4 an ounce. Unlike milk from monitored banks, donor milk received over the internet is relatively cheap, costing anywhere from less than a dollar to around $3, and sometimes even free, but it is not screened for possible health risks such as HIV and other viral infections. However, a growing number of families are learning that breast milk, no matter the source, is best for their children, and they are going to extreme lengths to procure it.
“We do see more and more mothers nowadays who are pumping extra in order to donate or to sell, that's definitely a newer phenomenon. Like I said, I've been leading for 18 years and I would say I've only seen this kind of pop up in the last five years and it's probably with social media,” says Tina Castellanos, president of the Le Leche League USA Council, a volunteer position at the nonprofit, and an affiliate of the international organization, La Leche League, that provides mothers with breastfeeding support and is considered a leading source for breastfeeding information.
In October 2016, Facebook introduced Facebook Marketplace, an online selling platform intended to make it easier for more than 450 million people already selling a range of items from used cars to second-hand furniture on Facebook to connect in one forum. Andrea Santiago started selling her leftover breast milk on the marketplace in the spring of 2017 for $2 an ounce.
“It'd be nice to take the kids out, and we cannot afford to take the kids out, so we’re usually home. We do go to free events and to the park and stuff like that,” Santiago says.
The Facebook commerce policy lists several items that are not allowed to be sold on the marketplace section of the social media site, including “unsafe supplements” and “adult health items.” It doesn’t specify what items fall into these categories, but Facebook may reject items that are posted.
In addition to Facebook Marketplace, there are also Facebook groups where sellers and buyers can connect, receive support, and possibly find buyers, donors or recipients. These groups include “Mommy’s Milk Money, A Support Group for Paid Breastmilk Donors”; “Eats on Feets,” which is a set of group pages where people can connect and share breast milk based in Facebook; and “Only the Breast,” where people can buy, sell or donate breast milk on a website.
However, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) recommends against feeding babies breast milk that is acquired over the internet. “When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk. In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby,” states the FDA website.
Through email, the FDA confirmed its recommendation, which it originally made in 2010 after questions from the public. The FDA also said it does not regulate milk banks.
Even though there are dangers to sharing milk with strangers, there is no law that truly prohibits it. The practice falls in a gray zone of legislation and regulation.
When I first started, I always asked for paperwork then I just started going off trust.
“People have warned against it. So the FDA warns against it, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns against it, but those aren't laws, those aren't even regulations,” says Kim Updegrove, executive director of the Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin, which provides screened and pasteurized human milk for 130 hospitals in 22 states.
Even though there aren’t laws affecting informal sharing, some see it as immoral.
“I’m sure there are places that do buy and sell, but that’s just unethical, it’s unsafe, you don’t know what people are doing with that milk,” says Leigh Anne O’Connor, a certified lactation consultant and media liaison of the La Leche League of New York.
Marie Clark, the mother in Texas, originally thought getting milk from another woman was unsafe and dangerous. “What if she has a disease and doesn’t know about it? You know, like a sexually transmitted disease to be completely honest,” she remembers thinking. “When I first started, I always asked for paperwork then I just started going off trust.”
Trust is a major part of the online donating, selling and receiving process, and that trust may be rooted in the fact that women have been sharing breast milk for centuries.
“Informal sharing, beginning with wet nursing, has existed for thousands of years and it's not gonna go away, because people are compassionate about other people, you know. For the most part, I believe that people are sharing their milk, if you want to limit the conversation to milk, I believe that they're doing so out of compassion, and out of a sense of altruism and taking care of the community,” says Kim Updegrove, of the Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin.
“Certainly, from my experience, informal milk sharing has increased with both the increase in social media, and with the increased appreciation of how important the human milk is for human babies,” says Catherine Watson Genna, a board-certified lactation consultant in the New York City area for 25 years.
Watson Genna says she doesn’t see informal human milk-sharing slowing down anytime soon.
“Women have always helped other women, sometimes for free, sometimes for money.”
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.