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Boston Globe: The Milk of Human Kindness

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Boston Globe

February 14, 2011

Adoptive moms are even using hormone treatments to induce lactation so they can breast-feed. And for women who can’t stomach the high price tags of these products and treatments — it costs about $100 a day to feed a full-term infant breast milk from a nonprofit bank — a booming white market in this “liquid gold’’ has emerged on the Internet, where breast milk is traded on sites such as Facebook and Freecycle.

According to Google Insights, a tool that measures search volume on the Internet, queries for the term “breast milk’’ doubled between January 2005 and January 2011.

There are no safeguards or quality controls in place when women casually swap milk through the Internet. But that hasn’t deterred Paige Eastman Dickinson, 40, a certified professional midwife in New Bedford, from collecting milk from generous mothers all over the state for her daughter Comfort, who is 7 months old. Eastman Dickinson had a problem lactation experts call low supply.

It’s unclear what causes low supply, but having the shortage of breast milk seems to go hand-in-hand with fertility issues and older maternal age. And as more women postpone having families into their 40s, doctors say they are seeing more who have problems with low supply.

Eastman Dickinson worked with her pediatrician for five weeks to try to breast-feed. She tried teas and supplements to increase her milk, but her baby was not gaining weight.

“I looked at the doctor and said ‘I am starving my baby,’ ’’ she said.

That started her on a quest to tap supplies of extra breast milk from friends, friends of friends, and Facebook friends, among others.

Comfort has gotten milk from more than 30 “milk mamas,’’ by Eastman Dickinson’s estimate, including a scientist at Woods Hole who turned over a cache of more than 800 ounces she’d kept in a freezer, which lasted the family for months.

Hospitals use breast milk from milk banks that carefully screen donors and then pasteurize and test their milk to reduce the risks to babies. But those kinds of safeguards don’t come cheap. Nonprofit banks charge $3 to $5 an ounce to cover the costs of processing and shipping, an amount that works out to $350 a week to feed a preemie or $700 a week to feed a full-term baby.

A California company, Prolacta, is selling hospitals a concentrated “protein shake’’ made from donated breast milk as a prescription-only treatment for premature babies. The company says it costs an average of $10,000 per infant to feed them the fortifier for two months.

As pricey as donor milk is, administrators are hopeful they may ultimately be saving money by preventing complications that require costly surgery and getting babies home more quickly. At a minimum, it costs about $2,000 a day for a baby to stay in the neonatal ICU.

“Data is getting stronger and stronger about how much better these babies do,’’ says Dr. Kathleen Marinelli, a neonatologist who is director of lactation support services at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center and medical director of the Newtonville milk bank. The risk of necrotizing entercolitis, a particularly fearsome complication for preemies that destroys intestinal tissue, is reduced to near zero, she says. “They have better eyesight, fewer infections; they get out of the hospital faster, and they’re less sick in the first few years of life.’’

For James Hobbs, who got to bring Ryder to the family’s home in Ashby after a month in the neonatal intensive care unit, the donor breast milk had value that went far beyond price.

Worried that Ryder might be too cold in a chilly house, James cupped his hands over his infant son’s head on his first night at home.

“He laid on the bed with his hands on his head and just looked at him all night long,’’ Christine Hobbs said. “He did not sleep all night long. He just kept feeling him. He just watched him all night long.’’

Clarification: This story should have said that Paige Eastman Dickinson, a New Bedford mother, screens donors she finds on the Internet by obtaining blood est results indicating whether they are disease-free.