Updated on March 30, 2016
Why I Won’t Sell My Breastmilk
Over the weekend, a lot of posts and questions came across my Facebook newsfeed discussing the buying and selling of human breastmilk. There were heated discussions about a woman’s right to profit from the sale of something that belongs to her and her alone, and women defending the not for profit milk bank industry. Look, I’m not here to judge. You do you. I still feel that it is important to express my opinion on this issue, and as a breastmilk donor, you can probably guess on which side of the debate my opinions are going to land. I will not sell my breastmilk, and I don’t think we should encourage a for profit breastmilk sharing industry. Here’s why.
Let me start by telling you a bit about my story. I am a breastmilk donor and I donate to the NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank here in Calgary. I’ve been donating pretty well since Petit Prince was born 9 months ago and have donated 44.5L (that’s just over 1500oz) so far. I have not been compensated for my breastmilk, and I would never ask for or expect payment. The milk bank I donate to provides breastmilk to NICUs across Canada, and the babies and their families pay NOTHING to receive it. The hospital pays for the milk, but that cost is not passed on to the families of NICU babies.
The pump I started with was covered 100% by my health insurance, so it was “free”. I pump into bottles (which I sterilize), and pour the milk into the storage containers that the NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank provides to its donors for free. So the only cost to me is for microwave sterilization bags.
I have also donated around 4L (135oz) through Human Milk 4 Human Babies. I asked for and received nothing in exchange for that breastmilk. It went to a mom who needed it in a town just over an hour away from Calgary, and her mom came by to pick it up from me.
I don’t sell my breastmilk, and it’s not something I would do. I also don’t think we as a society should be promoting breastmilk sharing for profit. I want to talk about what happens when breastmilk becomes a commodity for sale. If you’re a mom who is fortunate enough to have an excess of breastmilk, that’s amazing. There aren’t many of us that are able to produce more than our babies need, so if you are one of them, consider yourself lucky. I’d like to consider what happens if someone offers me, or any other breastfeeding mother, cash for breastmilk. Suddenly, breastfeeding isn’t just about feeding my child. Suddenly, breastfeeding becomes a means to an end. Maybe this month, I have breastmilk to spare because my son has started sleeping for longer stretches overnight. I’ve needed to pump to drain excess milk, and have an abundance of milk in the freezer that I know my baby won’t need to consume. So I sell it. I sell it to someone online for $1-2 per ounce (and that’s a pretty modest value for breastmilk on the open market). That 150oz that I collected that month earned me between $150 and $300, and that really helped. But what happens next month when my son goes through a growth spurt? He’s feeding more than ever before, and now I’m not able to pump any excess. Suddenly, that extra $150-$300 (or more) isn’t happening. What if losing that income because my own child needs my milk creates a hardship? What would I do then? I know for me in my situation, I would feed my baby first. As much as I’d like to think that every mother would make that same choice, the reality is that every mother does not or cannot make that same choice. If we commodify breastmilk and sell it for a profit, we create a choice that mothers have to make. Do I breastfeed my child as often as he or she needs, or do I try to cut back on his or her feedings so that I can still collect breastmilk to sell? Creating a system where mothers are even potentially confronted with the choice to feed their babies or sell their breastmilk isn’t acceptable to me.
What about selling your breastmilk to a for profit milk bank? A for profit milk bank is one that screens breastfeeding mothers (just as not for profit milk banks do), then pays the mothers by the ounce for breastmilk that they donate. Then, the for profit milk bank turns around and sells that same breastmilk for an even higher cost. The more they have to pay the mothers that sell their breastmilk to them, the more they charge for the breastmilk that they sell. In theory, mothers who sell their breastmilk to for profit milk banks should ensure that their own babies are thriving before they sell their milk. But how closely are these mothers and their babies followed?
My concern is that selling breastmilk may encourage mothers who are in desperate need of financial assistance to sell their breastmilk instead of feeding their own baby first. Maybe you’re thinking that just wouldn’t happen, but if breastmilk is only a commodity for donation, then we could be certain that mothers would be feeding their own babies first and foremost.
Breastmilk donation, on the other hand, doesn’t encourage mothers to ever choose between feeding their own babies and making money. If I don’t pump or choose not to donate what I have in my freezer, that’s fine. It’s my choice. I never feel an obligation to the not for profit milk bank. They’re not holding money over my head to pump for them. There are no financial consequences to me or my family if I am unable to pump excess milk or collect enough for a donation. None.
Shouldn’t moms be compensated for the extra effort they put in to pumping breastmilk for others? You know, this is a tough one. I know women and mothers have a long history of working for little to no compensation, but as a breastmilk donor, I choose to put in the effort knowing full well that there’s no financial compensation in it for me. In terms of how much effort and time I put in? I pump once a day after both kids are in bed. It takes me about 15 minutes total. I’ve pumped at the same time each day since around 6 weeks postpartum. I’ve essentially “tricked” my body into believing I need to feed my son at that time. I get, on average, 8-10oz in that one pumping session. Sometimes, Petit Prince does wake up at my pumping time and does need to be fed. So I feed him and then pump what’s left.
If I’m not profiting from my excess breastmilk, who is? Sick babies in the NICU, that’s who. Micro-preemies, preemies, babies that aren’t thriving who’s mothers cannot produce breastmilk for them, they ALL profit from my excess breastmilk. What about my donations through Human Milk 4 Human Babies? What’s in it for me there? What’s in it for me is knowing that I’ve helped a fellow mom. I’ve made feeding her baby just a little bit easier for even a day. The last thing I want is for mothers who’s babies need to be fed breastmilk to be left without it because they couldn’t afford it.
So no, I won’t sell my breastmilk. Yes, it’s mine and it belongs to me, and I could sell it. But because it’s mine, I can choose to do with it what I like. I won’t contribute to moms feeling the pressure to choose between earning a few hundred dollars and feeding their own babies. I won’t contribute to a for profit model that only serves to increase the cost of breastmilk for those who need it. I won’t reward the highest bidder. What I will do is donate it and donate it freely when I can for as long as I am able.