Moms Who Can't Nurse Find Milk Donors Online

Lindsey Ward dresses her 4-month-old son, Joshua, in her home in Woodbridge, Va., before making a "milk run" to receive donated breast milk from another mother. Ward believes that breast milk has greater health benefits for her son than does formula, but she is unable to pump adequate amounts of breast milk for him. (NPR)

New mothers are told again and again that breast milk is the healthiest food for babies. But not all mothers are able to nurse.

Some of them have discovered they can still give their babies the benefits of breast milk by feeding them milk donated by other moms. And they're finding those moms on Facebook. The federal government thinks that's a bad idea, but that's not stopping the milk-sharing.

Lindsey Ward fed her first child with formula, but she was determined to nurse her second. Despite her determination, and plenty of help and advice, breast-feeding was a struggle. "I fought through the pain, and it still didn't work," she says. By the time Joshua was a month old, he had gained just 1 ounce.

For most doctors — including those who advise the American Academy of Pediatrics — there is little question that breast milk is superior to infant formula because of its health benefits to newborns. Breast milk is believed to have immunity-boosting properties that formula lacks, and children who are breast fed seem to have slightly higher IQs than those on formula. The length of time a child is breast fed also seems to matter. A national nutrition survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that American infants who were exclusively breast fed for more than six months had lower risk of pneumonia and ear infections than those breast fed for four to six months.

Breast milk reigns within the medical community, but many women prefer formula or are required to use it for health and other reasons. And some women feel guilty about it. But according to the Mayo Clinic, formula is just fine for healthy babies who have typical dietary needs. As a controversial 2009 article published in The Atlantic last year arguing against breast-feeding pointed out, "the breast is probably best. But not so much better that formula deserves the label of 'public health menace.'"

— Eliza Barclay

So Ward, a 23-year-old, got online and started looking for help. She found a Facebook group called Eats on Feets.

Making Milk Runs

The group was started in July 2010 by Shell Walker, a midwife in Phoenix, who had helped clients find breast-milk donors when they had a health crisis or other problem that kept them from nursing. There are now more than 110 local Eats on Feets discussion groups on Facebook, so that women can meet other mothers in their area who are interested in milk-sharing.

The goal is for women to share milk without being paid. Sometimes mothers receiving donated milk offer to pay for milk bottles.

Within a few days after Ward posted a message asking for help, women started offering milk. The mothers had pumped milk for their own babies and had extra. Ward started driving to women's houses with a cooler in the trunk to get the frozen milk safely home.

One night, she drove to a rest area on I-95 to meet a truck driver from West Virginia. His wife had a freezer full of breast milk, and the trucker had offered to make a milk run. "This is kind of awkward and not exactly safe," she remembers thinking. Then, she saw the big red truck with logs on the back pull in.

The trucker gave her a cooler with 706.5 ounces of human milk — more than 5 gallons. "I gave him a big ole hug because I was very thankful," Ward says. "Before I started driving I got on my cell phone on Facebook and messaged his wife, and said, 'I hugged your husband. I hope that's OK!'"

Health Risk?

But the Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics take a dimmer view of the breast-milk-sharing phenomenon. They say that informal breast-milk sharing puts babies at risk of HIV, hepatitis B and other infectious diseases.

"We cannot recommend the sharing of breast milk over the Internet," says Lori Feldman-Winter, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Instead, Feldman-Winter says, mothers in need should turn to one of the country's 11 breast-milk banks.

Breast-milk banks take donations from nursing mothers who have been tested to make sure they don't have infectious diseases. The donated milk is pasteurized to further ensure its safety. Premature babies get first dibs on the milk because human milk gives them a host of benefits — including protection against necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious intestinal disorder. Parents of full-term babies can also get breast-milk bank but it's expensive.

Ward did contact a milk bank in North Carolina in her search for breast milk for Joshua.

"They said I'd need a prescription," she says. "And it'd be $3.50 per ounce. And I saw that, and my jaw dropped. And I was like, 'There's no way we could afford that.'"

Checking Blood Tests

Ward knows that there are health risks in using milk that comes directly from donors. She asks potential donors about their health and lifestyle.

"I ask if they consume alcohol, if they have a history of STDs," she says. "Anything I think is a safety concern. Anything that I wouldn't do while I was breast-feeding." The ultimate assurance, she says, is that these women are feeding their own babies with this milk.

Many women who seek donated milk for their babies ask the donors for the results of blood tests proving that they don't have infectious diseases, Walker says.

"We talk about safety a lot on the forums," she adds. "On top of that we have the first-hand contact with the moms to see." Ultimately, she says, "A mom donating milk doesn't want to be responsible for a sick baby."

Natalie Erdossy is one of those donors. She met Ward briefly through their midwife and later learned about her quest for donor milk on Facebook. "I have oversupply anyway," says Erdossy, 28, of Reston, Va. "I figured I have extra, and she needed it. There's no point throwing it away. That's just crazy."

Ward's milk runs have been so successful that the chest freezer she and her husband, Adam, bought to store the milk is full to the brim. And Joshua is thriving.

"He's gained 10 pounds in four months," Ward says. "He's had no problems whatsoever. He's just happy and healthy."

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Today in Your Health, the pros and cons of infant formulas. But first, the age-old practice of mothers sharing breast milk for babies is happening in new ways, on Facebook, even as the federal government is saying that mothers who share are risking the health of their babies.

NPR's Nancy Shute has more.

A few weeks ago, Lindsey Ward of Woodbridge, Virginia packed her two small children in the car, and drove to a rest stop on I-94. The 23-year-old woman was going to meet a truck driver.

Ms. LINDSEY WARD (Mother): He wasn't sure exactly what time, you know, he's a truck driver, you know, you run into traffic, it was cold, the weather, he had to go through the mountains.

SHUTE: The trucker had something that Lindsey was determined to get - breast milk for her baby.

Ms. WARD: I was waiting at the rest area, and he told me on the phone that his truck was red, and he was hauling logs, so that narrowed it down. And I saw him pull in, and then I saw him get out of the truck, and I just, you know, took a guess and walked over there and sure enough it was him, and he had the cooler full of milk.

SHUTE: The cooler held more than five gallons of his wife's breast milk.

Ms. WARD: I mean, it was kind of suspicious-looking, I'm sure, with coolers and exchange from a truck driver, and here I am this little frail-looking woman going up and picking up the coolers. I'm sure it looked awkward.

SHUTE: Lindsey had connected with the trucker's wife on Facebook. And since the woman lived about six hours away in West Virginia, Lindsey was happy that the trucker offered to deliver the milk.

Ms. WARD: I gave him a big old hug because I was very thankful for, you know, going out of his way and everything. I got into the car and before I started driving I got on my cell phone on Facebook and messaged his wife. I said, I hugged your husband, I hope that's okay. I was just, you know, so thankful.

SHUTE: This is not a journey that Lindsey has taken on lightly. She knows that the Food and Drug Administration says that moms shouldn't share breast milk because it could pose a health risk to babies.

Lori Feldman-Winter is a pediatrician and an expert on breastfeeding. She also thinks that milk sharing is too risky.

Dr. LORI FELDMAN-WINTER (Pediatrician): Because of the lack of surveillance for things such as infectious diseases or the possibility of any illicit substances that wouldn't be tested for.

SHUTE: Knowing about those risks has not stopped Lindsey from using donated milk. Lindsey had tried to nurse both her children, and it didn't work out. After her son was born in August, she started looking for other options.

Ms. WARD: If he can't have my milk, I'll find somebody else's milk, you know, breast milk is still breast milk no matter whose breast it's coming from.

SHUTE: Lindsey got online and found a human milk bank. These non-profit banks collect milk, donated from mothers who don't need it for their babies. They screen the donors for infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis, and they pasteurize the milk to make sure it's safe.

But the screening and processing can make the milk bank milk very expensive. Lindsey found that out herself.

Ms. WARD: They said that I would have to go through the doctor and get a prescription for breast milk, and that it would be $3.50 per ounce, and my jaw dropped.

SHUTE: So Lindsey got back on Facebook and posted that she needed breast milk for Joshua. Breastfeeding moms started offering their extra milk for free. Now she has a freezer filled to the brim with plastic bags of breast milk.

Ms. WARD: This milk right here, these two plastic bags, came from a mother in Charlottesville. All that milk came from a mother in Alexandria.

SHUTE: Lindsey has been feeding Joshua milk from several women. He's doing great. He gained ten pounds in four months.

Ms. WARD: There's more milk underneath here that came from a mother in West Virginia.

SHUTE: Today Lindsey is back in her car heading out on another milk run. She plugs the donor's address into her GPS.

(Soundbite of GPS)

SHUTE: Nobody's figured out the risk of milk sharing, but some experts told us that about three percent of the milk given to milk banks turns out to be contaminated. That might be the size of the risk that Lindsey's taking. She's decided to do her own informal screening of donors.

Ms. WARD: I ask about their diet and their lifestyle and, you know, do they consume alcohol, are they on any medications, have they had a history of STDs.

SHUTE: She sometimes looks at donors' blood tests.

Ms. WARD: It's standard to get blood work done when you're pregnant, so you can ask these women for their record and look at it, and see that they're clean.

SHUTE: There's one more layer of assurance that makes Lindsey believe the milk is safe: the donors' babies and her baby are all drinking the same milk.

Nancy Shute, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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