"Women are selling their breast milk on the Internet," my husband mentioned casually. "That was the topic at soccer tonight." He'd just returned from our 8-year-olds' practice and knew a line like that would guarantee a reporters' undivided attention — something hard to come by in a home with five children.
I mention the dinner discussion because viewers often ask how Today Show stories are generated. It's frequently like this, or an email from a viewer or a random conversation in the grocery store. Personally, I've found the Little League fields to be especially fertile ground — the parents are always talking about something quirky. On that note, let me mention that my email address is included here, and as I continue to write and report for the Today Show and iVillage, I'd love to hear from you — story idea or not.
Yes, I was surprised to learn, there's a healthy demand for breast milk, and I was surprised even further that a mom would feed her child milk from another women's breast. No offense intended, it just struck me as unusual. Breastfeeding is one of those topics everyone has an opinion on — whether you should, when you should, how long you should and so on. Let those debates rage elsewhere and back to the topic at hand. I came to learn that although pediatricians often recommend breast milk for preemies, not all new moms can nurse. And a market was born.
For this story, I traveled to Denver to visit a breast milk bank. I'd never heard of one, but what an interesting place. It looked like a lab. Bottles of frozen breast milk arrived in boxes of every shape, all from screened donors. In another room the milk was thawed, mixed, pasteurized and then rebottled and shipped out. All that processing puts the cost at about $3 per ounce. When you consider some babies take 24 ounces a day, or $75 worth, it sure makes that vente latte sound like a bargain!
With those prices, it was inevitable that a black market for breast milk would develop. You won't find it on eBay or Craigslist — they've banned the ads — but there is a booming trade in the sale of women's breast milk, with liquid entrepreneurs offering their own on various websites and bulletin boards. And there's not a rule against it. The FDA, which seems to regulate everything, steers clear of human milk. Only Texas and California have laws addressing its sale.
The benefits of breast milk are well documented, but breast milk can also transmit HIV, hepatitis and drugs to a fragile newborn. It's why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends steering clear of those private sellers. As one mother put it, how can we warn our children about strangers and then feed a newborn a substance negotiated over the Internet from the body of someone we don't know?
Beyond the milk bank, I met women who donate to it and those who buy from it. After spending time with them, the idea of one woman's milk to another's pride and joy seemed much less foreign. I simply saw mothers trying to do the right thing.