What to do with a freezer full of breast milk?
That's the dilemma Alexis Garrett faced in February when her son, Ansiel, was moving on from breast milk and she was still producing.
"I didn't think I could sell it, but I just googled 'selling breast milk' to see what would happen," Garrett says.
Garrett, 18, was finishing up at Stratford High School when she discovered OnlytheBreast.com, a site where mothers buy and sell breast milk by the ounce. The website is one of a few venues now available to mothers who can't breast-feed.
At OnlytheBreast, sellers set their prices based on their individual diet and lifestyle. Garrett, a nonsmoking healthy eater who was pumping 25 to 45 extra ounces a week, asked for $2 an ounce. Now, she has shipped milk in Styrofoam containers and on dry ice as far away as South Dakota.
"I think it's a win-win for both people," Garrett says. She compares her price with the higher prices charged at milk banks, the formal route for mothers in need.
At the banks, mothers who pump excess breast milk donate their milk for free, but not until they've been screened for disease. The bank then pasteurizes the milk as a safeguard, stores it, and sells it, mostly to hospitals, at a price that helps cover the cost of the safety precautions. WakeMed Mothers' Milk Bank in Raleigh, the closest bank to Charleston, charges $5 per ounce for individual buyers or $4 if they pick it up in person.
Tina Mackey, a stay-at-home mom in Greenville, needed milk when her fourth child, Isabella, was born in January. Mackey has a condition called insufficient glandular tissue.
"I get to a point where I hit a wall, and I don't make any more milk, so I always need to supplement something," says Mackey, 34. For her first three children, she supplemented with infant formula, but she thinks it might have given one of them stomach problems — and besides, experts say breast milk is the best milk.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the nutrients and antibodies transmitted in breast-feeding lower the risk of asthma, obesity, diabetes, and lower respiratory infections in children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding as part of a child's diet for 12 months; the World Health Organization recommends it for two years and beyond. But a 2010 study by the Centers for Disease Control showed that only 30 percent of children in South Carolina are still breast-fed at six months of age, compared with a national average of 43 percent.
Milk banks sell milk to mothers like Mackey who are unable to produce enough milk, as well as to mothers who have HIV or who are taking certain medications and cannot safely feed their own children.
A milk bank quoted Mackey a price of $3.50 an ounce. Supplementing 16 ounces a day, she would have spent over $10,000 on baby formula over the course of six months. Instead, she started asking around in her group of friends and found some mothers who were willing to pump and freeze bags of milk for her for free. Then she found Human Milk 4 Human Babies.
HM4HB, as it is sometimes abbreviated, is a network of local Facebook pages that helps make connections between moms with too much milk and moms with not enough — for free. On the South Carolina HM4HB page, Mackey found enough milk to fill the gaps in baby Isabella's diet. All of the donors were in the Greenville area, and she spoke to all of them in person before accepting their milk.
On the giving end of the HM4HB equation, Jess Thompson of Summerville decided against giving to a milk bank because she believes that pasteurization kills the useful antibodies found in breast milk. And she decided against selling online because she thought it would be unfair.
"I don't want any money for my milk," says Thompson, 26. "It didn't cost me anything to make it."
Naomi Hambleton, leader of the pro-breastfeeding group La Leche League of Charleston, says Thompson's fear about pasteurization is a common misconception; studies show that the sterilization process leaves many of the important components intact. Her organization recommends against informal milk-sharing arrangements like the ones made on HM4HB or OnlytheBreast, as does the Food and Drug Administration.
Emma Kwasnica, the Montreal-based founder of HM4HB, says mothers using her site should meet up in person. Some mothers even ask to see blood work from potential donors. However, she questions the safety of selling breast milk at sites like OnlytheBreast.
"Once you introduce money into the picture, the motives for sharing milk are not the same," Kwasnica says. "They could dilute the milk. They could put formula in there. We don't know."
And the motivations of buyers can be different, too. Garrett says some of her sales on OnlytheBreast have been to men, including recovering cancer patients and a bodybuilder. She's also had to turn down a few "creepy" requests from men who wanted pictures or videos of her.
"Most people think it's really weird or nasty," says Garrett, who graduated from Stratford and will study nursing at Charleston Southern University this fall. "Young single mothers like me, I think they think it's more acceptable."
For the time being, Garrett still has a freezer to contend with. She adds, "I will continue to sell until all my milk is gone, and when I have more time, I may start pumping more to sell."