A baby coos over the phone. “Sorry about that,” laughs Elizabeth Torrez about her four-month-old son, Liam. “He must be hungry.”
The 27-year-old mother of three from Sugar Land tells us that she produces a lot of milk after her pregnancies, more than her babies could ever drink. She donates part of the surplus to neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) patients through the Texas Children’s Hospital (TCH) milk bank, and sells the rest online.
The advantages of human milk are well-known. Research shows it helps premature infants avoid medical complications including necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening disease that attacks the intestinal tract. And it decreases the incidence of respiratory disease and infection in all babies, among a host of other benefits.
Donating is relatively easy. Locally, besides TCH, Mother’s Milk Bank (MMB) accepts it from Houston moms, with both organizations providing a basic blood test to check for transmissible diseases including HIV, hepatitis, syphilis and human T-lymphotropic virus.
“When a mother donates 100 ounces of milk, that’s close to 300 meals for preemie babies, who are much smaller and don’t need as much milk,” says Kim Updegrove, executive director of MMB, which is based in Austin and serves Central and South Texas. “Last year, we pasteurized and dispensed 483,000 ounces—that’s 3,773 gallons—of donor human milk to sick infants.”
But what about mothers who have healthy babies but trouble lactating, as well as adoptive and same-sex parents, who want to provide their little ones with the advantages that breast milk, as opposed to formula, provides? At both TCH and MMB, parents of healthier babies can request milk, but sick babies are always the priority. Cue the Internet.
Only the Breast, an e-commerce website, is basically what you’d get if a dating website had a baby with a mommy blog. Recent Houston-area posts include “Clean Milk—My baby started walking at just 9 months old!!” and “Non-smoking, non-drinking vegan mom with extra fatty milk!”
Torrez started selling on the site after her second pregnancy. “I made around $5,000 selling fresh and frozen milk,” she says. “I used it to pay for diapers and baby supplies.”
This time around, she has regular customers, some of whom are not parents. “One of my clients is a bodybuilder, another has kidney failure, and one woman uses it as moisturizer on her face,” she says. “I’ve also had weird, sex-related requests, which I ignore.”
Torrez’s milk goes for $2.50 per ounce fresh and $1.50 frozen, an average price point for the site. Babies typically drink between 12 and 32 ounces a day, depending on their age, making the stuff like liquid gold.
Sourcing breast milk online is not only expensive; it comes with risks. While the practice is not regulated by the FDA, in 2010, the agency advised “against feeding your baby breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet.” Unlike TCH and MMB, websites rely on the honor system for information on the health of the mother—an imperfect system at best.
Nancy Hurst, director of women’s support services at TCH and an international board-certified lactation consultant, agrees with the FDA. “Milk sharing is as old as dirt, but not to know the health status of the mother and how the milk is stored and transferred is risky,” she says.
Parents, she adds, aren’t always aware of potential dangers. “People always worry about HIV, but there are other viruses and bacteria that aren’t concerns for the mother and her biological babies because they’ve both been exposed to them. But to another infant, it could have a negative effect. We don’t recommend it.”
For her part, Torrez insists she helps people.
“I’ve met so many mothers in the area. One in particular—who’s now a friend—reached out because she couldn’t breast-feed her baby, who has Down syndrome,” she shares. “She asked to buy my milk, but I said no. I gave it to her for free.”