When Anthony Rodriguez was born last June he was unable to breast feed naturally. He entered the world without a corpus callosum, the fibrous bundle of tissue that connects the brain’s two hemispheres and controls sucking. To compound the matter, his mother, Yecenia Rodriguez, suffered complications during labor that thwarted natural lactation. Infant formula, delivered by a feeding tube, was the only option until Anthony’s body rejected it. Severe bouts of constipation, bleeding and projectile vomiting became the hallmarks of his young life. At 6 months old, Anthony weighed 11 pounds, nearly seven pounds lighter than the median. “He was dying in front of my eyes,” Rodriguez said.
In desperation, Rodriguez abandoned the formula, but with breast milk a costly $8 an ounce at her local milk bank (Anthony consumes 36 ounces a day), she wrote a frantic Craigslist ad begging mothers with excess milk to spare some for Anthony. The next morning, her inbox was full.
“Overnight, I got people calling me from Australia, Japan, Canada, New York, New Jersey,” Rodriguez said from her Klamath Falls, Ore., home.
One of those calls was from Laura Moore, a 28-year-old mother of three from Washington State. So moved was she by Anthony’s story that the day after learning of Anthony’s plight she shipped 100 ounces of her frozen breast milk. “Knowing that I’m helping a mother, especially with a medically ill child, is an amazing gift,” Moore said.
For his first four months, Anthony would vomit seven to 10 times a day; since switching to breast milk, said his mother, “not even a burp.”
The sharing of breast milk has existed in different forms for millennia. Recently, however, milk exchange has exploded online as new websites link overly lactating mothers with women, and men, desirous of breast milk. While some of these websites, like “Eats on Feets,” enforce a commerce-free community, others, like “Only the Breast,” provide a forum for the buying and selling of what can be an expensive commodity.
The difficulty of regulating this knotty phenomenon is vexing public health bodies worldwide. A paper in the International Breastfeeding Journal last year noted that “the public health community has a choice: Stay on the side-lines or move to engage, to assist those who are involved in milk sharing to make it as safe as possible.”
In early March, the American Association of Pediatrics, the country’s leading children’s health organization, updated its breastfeeding guidelines concluding that “choosing to breastfeed should be considered an investment in the short- and long-term health of the infant, rather than a lifestyle choice.”
For mothers like Rodriguez, unable to feed or use formula, online procurement makes sense. And for providers, the money’s not bad either.But the message is confusing and has driven a wedge between healthcare professionals — keen on breast-feeding, wary of milk sharing — and the mothers they serve. When Yecenia Rodriguez announced that she wanted to start using donated milk, she received a hostile reaction. “One nurse said I would be feeding my son drugs,” she said. “People threatened to take him away.”
At thebreastmilk.com, a photo of a heavily pregnant blonde clasping her baby bump, greets visitors. Behind her, an idyllic Californian beach completes the picture of West Coast vitality. The professional-looking website, started by Holly Burke, a 25-year-old mother from Orange County, is barely a month old. In that brief window, Burke said she has made nearly $2,000 selling her breast milk at $2.50 an ounce.
“Instead of fishing through links and blogs, I wanted to market myself,” she said. “I’m a great candidate and the best person to receive milk from.”
Not all, however, applaud the sale of mother’s milk. Laura Moore credits her breast milk with saving her first child’s life, born prematurely in 2006. Since then, Moore has donated milk to 54 babies (Anthony Rodriguez was the 15th). Although she understands why some mothers might seek to profit, Moore won’t. “When you bring money into it, people do bad things,” she said.
James Akre, one of the authors of the International Breastfeeding Journal paper, acknowledged the risk, but also criticized a lack of institutional foresight in providing mothers with affordable access to breast milk. There are, for example, 10 milk banks in the U.S. “There are 12 in Norway for a population of not even five million,” said Akre. “We’re not putting our milk where our baby’s mouths are.”
For mothers like Yecenia Rodriguez, whose husband was recently laid off, the milk banks are prohibitively expensive. Following the success of her ad, she now counts on a regular supply of breast milk from a stable of donating mothers. But despite the free milk, the shipping costs, which Rodriguez meets, mount up — often as high as $300 a shipment.
She and her young family plan to move back in with her parents nearby in early March. “Every dollar we save goes into shipping our son’s breast milk,” she said.
Rodriguez is wary of the risks, but said the improvement in Anthony’s health was palpable. A healthy lifestyle, said Burke, was her unique selling point. She provides all customers with up-to-date medical records and the money she makes is reinvested back into healthier, more expensive foods. “The price of my milk is the satisfaction of knowing I’m a healthy source,” she said.
But the business isn’t without its drawbacks. About 50 percent of Burke’s customers are men. While half of them use breast milk as an athletic supplement or a cancer-fighting tonic, she described the other half as “complete weirdos.”
“They’re very inappropriate,” she added. “For them it’s a fetish.”
“It’s not something I go out and broadcast,” said Den, a 38-year-old man from Roanoke, Va., who refused to reveal his full name for fear of recriminations. He suffers from low vitamin D levels, and said he drinks between 30 and 50 ounces of breast milk a week — a habit formed when his wife fed his son. “I prefer to do things the natural way.”