Inside the underground breast milk market

Inside the underground breast milk market

With three children ages 2 to 9, a part-time job and the classes she takes at a community college, Brittney Duenas does a lot of juggling.

Even so, the Marysville, Calif., nursing mom sets aside as many as four hours a day to pump breast milk.

On average, a baby takes between 25 and 35 ounces a day, and what her youngest, still-nursing child doesn’t need, Duenas sells.

“It takes me 30 minutes to an hour to pump, each time,” the 30-year-old tells The Post. “I get about 85 ounces per day.”

Those extra ounces don’t go to waste. Through Facebook, Duenas sells or donates her ample supply to families across the state. Those who live nearby meet her at Target or Walmart parking lots. Some receive her surplus milk in frozen bags packed in dry ice and shipped out from Duenas’ local FedEx, for an average of 60 cents an ounce, plus the cost of shipping.

That covers supplies and the food she needs as a nursing mother, says Duenas, who adjusts her price for bulk orders.

“I go through food like crazy,” says Duenas, who’s married to a graduate student whom she says is completely supportive. “It adds up.”

She estimates she’s either donated or sold about 32,000 ounces of breast milk over the past two years — burning through six pumps in the process.

It’s worth it, says Duenas, who says she’s donated her milk to more than 30 families. “To see and to help other babies, and to see them grow and hit their milestones off something my body produces is beyond amazing,” she says.

It can also be profitable.

An underground economy for breast milk has skyrocketed, with 5-ounce bags going for about five bucks — aided, in part, by the ease of connecting via Facebook.

“[Milk sharing] has been around since the beginning of time, but the Internet surely makes it a different ballgame,” says Naomi Bar-Yam, the executive director of Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast, a nonprofit dedicated to providing pasteurized human milk to medically at-risk babies. The price of this “liquid gold” is determined by a mother’s diet, with milk free of dairy, caffeine and gluten fetching higher fees.

Then again, some parents are desperate for any breast milk they can find.

Hours after Claybourne Elder’s son, Bo, was born via surrogate in Fresno, Calif., Elder and his husband, Eric Rosen, realized the baby wasn’t taking well to formula.

“We found out very quickly that first night that he is lactose intolerant,” recalls Elder, an actor now living in New York, where he’s currently an understudy in “Torch Song” on Broadway. “The formula was making him sick.”

Elder quickly joined a Fresno-area breast-milk sharing group on Facebook, and posted a picture of his new family with a call for help.

“I got, like, a million responses over the next 24 hours,” he says. He soon connected with a nursing mother eager to donate, and arranged to meet her in the parking lot of a liquor store. “It was 11 o’clock at night. It sounded like a conversation from a hookup app, but for ‘contraband’ person-milk.

“She jumped out of her car and had a little cooler with five or six bags of breast milk with ice packs for me,” says Elder.

“It was beautiful, frankly,” he says. “We said goodbye, I never heard from her again, I have no idea who she is. I took it back, and Bo lapped it up.” Elder drove around Fresno picking up small donations of milk from no fewer than 10 women for baby Bo, now 16 months, who subsisted on donated milk for six months before transitioning to formula and solids.

The micro-economy can be a godsend for desperate parents, but Bar-Yam has serious reservations.

“Once money changes hands, there are incentives to cut corners,” she says. Although it’s technically legal to sell breast milk, the exchange is virtually unregulated, and sellers may be liable for fraud, or worse, if they sell diluted breast milk, or knowingly sell milk infected with diseases like HIV or HPV, which can be transferred to a baby.

“It’s a fully trust-based system,” says Duenas. “I’m completely open about my medical history. Anything you can think of, I’ve been tested for.”

Even so, milk deals occasionally go sour. Duenas says one customer demanded a refund, which she declined to give.

“Apparently her baby had a dairy intolerance, and she blamed it on me that her baby was sick,” says Duenas, who advertises herself as alcohol- and tobacco-free, but does indulge daily in caffeine and dairy. “I told her I can’t reuse or re-donate the milk.”

Bar-Yam says there are even graver dangers for those children drinking a stranger’s milk.

“The question becomes what risk parents are willing to take on this,” she says. “Is it important enough that they are willing to take the chance that the mom that is pumping the milk has syphilis, probably unbeknownst to her?”

The answer, for many parents who ardently believe “breast is best,” seems to be yes. Julie Garcia, 45, of Morgan Hill, Calif., had no trouble nursing her daughter, now 5, but ran into issues with her son Jace, who was born about six weeks premature, with respiratory issues and a tongue-tie, which makes it hard for a baby to nurse from a nipple.

“He had trouble latching, so we started off with a struggle from Day 1,” says Garcia. “What I was pumping was not enough to sustain him . . . there had to be some sort of intervention.”

‘You have to trust the mother that is donating to you.’

After consulting with her pediatrician, who gave the green light, Garcia turned to Facebook, where she found Duenas.

“You have to trust the mother that is donating to you. Brittney supplies full lab work, her HIV status, her hepatitis status,” Garcia says. “She is one who makes you feel very comfortable.” So far, Garcia’s paid $300 for 600 ounces of milk that Duenas ships to her, frozen.

“My son has thrived on it,” Garcia says. “I’m so glad I made that decision.”

She’s also getting a bargain: At milk banks, an ounce of milk is sold for $3. “Our processes are modeled after blood banking,” says Bar-Yam. Mothers’ Milk Bank requires interview screening, health questionnaires, consent forms and permission from donors’ doctors, partly because the center is designed to cater toward premature and fragile babies. All breast milk undergoes testing and pasteurization, which strips it of some of its antibodies and nutrients.

For those on a budget, word-of-mouth milk may be the best option — especially when the milk’s stored with love. “We had a little stockpile of breast milk left in our freezer after Bo was done,” says Elder, who made sure all the milk was put to use. “We passed it onto another family — somebody [was able to] benefit.”

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