Breast Milk Is Now Available Online. But Is It Good for Baby?

updated 06/13/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When it comes to the classic question of how best to feed your newborn—breast milk or formula?—Jenn Connel, of Wilton, N.H., falls firmly in the milk camp. She offers her two baby boys—Grayson, 17 months, and Preston, 5 months—as proof. "They're just so healthy" she says. But Connel, a 34-year-old breast cancer survivor, has had to work harder than many moms to give her kids the milk she feels they need: Because of a double mastectomy three years ago, she is unable to breast-feed.

So after Grayson's birth in 2003, Connel started a Web site ( ) and appealed to other moms for help. The response has been overwhelming. After filling out health questionnaires, dozens of lactating mothers from as far away as Washington State have overnighted breast milk packed in dry ice, which Connel then has fed to her sons in bottles. "I look at the boys and think, I couldn't have made a better decision," she says.

Got breast milk? If so, there's a growing market for the stuff, thanks to parents like Connel, who, for reasons ranging from adoption to illness to single fatherhood, can't satisfy the needs of their own families. With mounting evidence that mother's milk during the first year of life provides children with a host of benefits including immunities to many illnesses, some parents who can't naturally provide it are turning to relatives, friends and the Internet to obtain milk, for free or for a price. In the face of skeptics, they like to point out that wet nurses existed long before formula was invented. "That is what women did," says Kelley Faulkner, a Holliston, Mass., midwife. Faulkner, 26, is eight months pregnant with her second child but can't nurse because of milk-duct problems—yet she has already lined up 12 women willing to donate milk.

Hard numbers on the volume of such trades are impossible to come by. But pediatricians and health experts are sufficiently concerned to warn those involved that the potential risks of using milk from an unknown source far outweigh any benefits. Studies have shown that mother's milk can carry diseases as serious as hepatitis and HIV, and both the American Academy of Pediatrics and La Leche League, the breast-feeding advocacy group, warn against casual sharing of breast milk. "I don't think there's any way a person could screen for these things at home," says Dr. Wendy Hansen, director of maternal fetal medicine at the University of Kentucky medical center. In fact, in California and New York it is illegal for unauthorized providers to sell or give away breast milk over the Internet.

Of course parents looking for a third-party source of breast milk can go through one of eight established milk banks in the U.S., says Mary Tagge, the coordinator of one such center at Presbyterian/St. Luke's Medical Center in Denver. There, potential donors are screened for hepatitis, HIV and other infectious diseases. All milk donations are pasteurized and then frozen for safe storage. Says Tagge: "If there is a risk of a possible danger to a baby, why would you even want to consider [getting milk on the Internet]?" But such care and handling comes at a cost: Milk banks typically charge a processing fee of $3 an ounce. Given that a baby can drink 28 oz. a day, that can add up to $15,000 for a six-month supply.

That places the safest option out of reach for many would-be breast milk users, say advocates of the often-free exchange of milk through informal networks. Besides, some say they prefer the personal interaction that is part of many private exchanges. New mom Trisha Lozier, 29, of Louisville, Ky., says she heard from a fellow church member about a man in a nearby town who was raising a baby boy on his own and wanted to give the infant breast milk. Every day she pumps an extra 12 oz. of milk after feeding 8-month-old Madelyn and eventually packs it in a cooler for the young father. "I had an excess of milk. If I hadn't done this, it would've gone to waste," she says. Adds her husband, Matthew, 35: "I'm glad we could help."

Nancy Jeffrey; Sandra Marquez in Los Angeles; Kate Klise in Louisville; Le Datta Grimes in Lexington, Ky.

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