Carly Vogt had an oversupply of breast milk — an amount her nearly 1-year-old daughter would not finish as she continued to breastfeed her directly.
Having breast milk to use at the ready is on a mother’s wish list, and knowing that, Vogt, 28, of Egg Harbor Township, used community milk-sharing networks on social media to donate milk to local women who needed it.
The mothers who participate in milk sharing, which has taken off in recent years as breast milk remains in high demand, say the practice has filled a hole left behind in the lack of accessible and affordable milk from certified milk banks, while public health experts continue to warn of the safety and health risks.
“I know the burden as a mom to not be able to breastfeed, and I wanted to be able to provide a mom who prefers breast milk,” Vogt said. “You do the best with what you’re given, and the best is to pay it forward.”
Breastfeeding, recognized as the best source of nutrition for infants, is on the rise nationally, including in New Jersey, where nearly 84 percent of mothers reported breastfeeding in 2014, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Milk sharing, which dates through human history, has become more common in its modern forms of certified milk banks and families using web-based networks such as Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies to arrange meetings at homes, parking lots, day care centers and other places to get frozen packets of breast milk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of an infant’s life and continuing for the first year or beyond. Health care professionals in recent years have encouraged breastfeeding over formula use when possible.
Sarah Chaikin, lactation consultant at Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative, said mothers may not be able to breastfeed or produce enough milk because of hormone disruptions, problems with a baby’s ability to feed or issues that may make it more difficult to produce milk, such as pumping at an unsupportive or stressful workplace.
Chaikin said consultants at the cooperative stress the importance of first seeing a lactation consultant and talking with a pediatrician before looking into alternative feeding options that may have risks, including informal milk sharing and formula.
“Before moms get to the point of considering donor milk, whether from a bank or another mom, she deserves the opportunity to work with an expert to try and improve her milk supply,” she said. “I can’t say how many people struggle at work and when they come in, we discover the problem is with the pump.”
But when women do reach a point where they cannot produce milk themselves, even after intervention, where do they go?
One option is to turn to breast milk banks. The 26 established nonprofit milk banks in the United States and Canada are accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, which establishes national safety guidelines for milk banks.
These milk banks screen donations for bacteria, disease and other contaminants and then pasteurize the milk. While that process kills bacteria, it also eliminates a small percentage of nutrients in breast milk.
Many health experts and organizations recommend that families use milk donations from a certified bank, but some South Jersey women said the cost of $3 to $5 per ounce of pasteurized milk and lack of in-state facilities make that difficult.
With an average 2-month-old eating about 25 ounces per day, the option can be expensive and unaffordable for many.
Currently, there are no milk banks based in New Jersey that collect and distribute milk to the general public. A handful of hospitals order donations from out-of-state banks, and those donations primarily go to premature or sick infants. Parents who want to individually buy milk from banks need a prescription from a doctor.
State legislators recently made headway with a bill that would create licensure and regulations for milk banks operating in New Jersey, if and when they come to the state. A second bill would require health coverage for donated breast milk under certain conditions.
“Mothers are turning to the internet to find breast milk at a cost they can afford,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden, Burlington. “Without regulation in place for Human Milk Banks, mothers have no way of knowing if the milk being purchased is certified or meets the quality of standards it should.”
Ariel Giunta and her husband considered the risks of using person-to-person breast milk donation when they were in short supply to feed their 5-month-old son. The couple had a difficult time switching their 3-year-old son to formula when he was an infant and wanted to avoid a similar experience.
Giunta said they ultimately decided to try local milk-sharing networks and trust the donors were honest about their health statuses, dietary practices and lifestyle choices.
“There are women donating for free, so it doesn’t make sense to go buy containers of formula,” she said. “You kind of feel them out, and can tell, once you meet them, the kind of person they are. These moms are very conscious about what they put in their bodies.”
Vogt and Giunta, both having been referred to the web-based networks by other mothers, said their experiences with informal milk sharing have been largely positive.
As a donor, Vogt said she remains vigilant of her health and is upfront with mothers about information including her caffeine intake, medications — even those that may not affect her breast milk — and dairy consumption.
Vogt, who breastfeeds her 1-year-old daughter and successfully breastfed her 2-year-old son, continues to pump and store extra breast milk that she will eventually donate to a local family who is in need and unable to purchase it from a bank or needs it quickly.
Both Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies prohibit participants from charging a price on milk donations arranged through the network to eliminate any financial motives. However, there are people who sell breast milk online through other platforms, something that worries health experts.
“We don’t want to see low-income mothers in situations where they choose to sell their breast milk to another mother and then feed formula to their own baby,” Chaikin said. “We don’t want to see a commercialization situation that encourages that kind of injustice.”
Though most health professionals prefer families obtain breast milk through certified milk banks, if in need, Chaikin said it’s every mother’s or parent’s right and responsibility to decide how their infant will be fed.
“It’s really nice that this has become more normal in conversation,” Vogt said. “It’s comforting for mothers to know that even if they’re not able to produce on their own, they can still get the protection offered in breast milk for their babies with the help of other women.”