Moms Who Can't Breast-Feed Find Milk Donors Online Health officials say that moms participating in milk exchanges like those organized on Facebook are endangering their babies' health. But the moms say they're giving their children the healthiest possible start in life.

Moms Who Can't Nurse Find Milk Donors Online

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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.

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