Got Milk: The Underground Online Marketplace for Human Breast Milk
Because no laws exist regarding the sale of human breast milk, it's technically not illegal but largely unregulated. We spoke to people who sell their breast milk online about why and how they sell their excess lactation.
Image by Brandon Bird
Selling breast milk online begins a lot like any other successful e-commerce pursuit: it involves posting a picture of the goods in question—in this case yourself and/or your baby (the most successful ads tend to feature both); carefully wording a classified ad explaining why you no longer want the excess milk, while reassuring potential buyers that they absolutely should; and even paying for promoted ad placement space.
In the world of peddling online breast milk, mothers looking to make money off their excess milk become their own marketing managers, constantly curating their personal brands to separate themselves from the rest. It's why you'll find labels like "organic," "gluten and dairy free," and "vegan" swimming through milk classified sites like sad goldfish in an elaborate fish tank at a mid-scale Chinese restaurant. The sea of labels can actually be pretty reassuring, even to someone like myself who is not looking to buy milk at all. It makes the whole experience feel vaguely familiar, like perusing the dairy aisle at your local grocery store. However, as with basically everything on the Internet, the online breast milk market has a darker side: In addition to new parents, potential buyers might include breast milk fetishists and bodybuilders who claim the milk helps them "grow beyond measure."
Perusing breast milk listings can feel vaguely criminal, especially since the trade has been sensationalized into its own "booming black market." In reality, the industry is much more grey: There are currently no regulations in place for selling human breast milk in America. Since no laws governing the sale of breast milk exist, the business is largely unregulated but not illegal. This allows anyone to sell breast milk to anyone else. And, with the rise of breast milk classified websites, more often than not, anyone does.
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Of these online milk classified sites, Only The Breast is king. Compared to the handful of listings found on competitors Breastmilkforsale.co, Kijiji and Craigslist, Only The Breast offers thousands of ounces of milk at varying price points: "Moms with babies in need want an easy way of buying breast milk at a competitive price, and many moms breastfeeding babies need the extra income so they can work from home by selling their breast milk," according to the Only The Breast about page.
The site works like Craigslist, except it only sells one product: human breast milk. There are over 10,000 different classified ads and 45 million ounces of milk flowing through the classified site at any given time. That's because, after pumping, sellers freeze their remaining un-drunk milk in order to keep it fresh for potential buyers. If the frozen milk doesn't get sold, it winds up competing for precious shelf space with frozen peas and chicken breasts in freezers across America: "Lots of milk, freezer is full, must go. Low price!" writes one user. "Healthy Olympia, Washington Mama Looking to Clear Out the Freezer!" writes another. "Discount! No room in freezer chest!!!" says a third. And the freezer proclamations go on and on.
If I was offered maternity benefits, I would definitely be donating breast milk instead [of selling it].
Despite the flood of easy money promised to sellers, several women who advertise their breast milk online tell Broadly that they have difficulty finding legitimate buyers. All the breast milk sellers I spoke to expressed the same thing: they joined Only The Breast because they heard it was a way to make extra money, something they desperately needed after having a child without paid maternity leave or childcare benefits. However, according to their accounts, the online breast milk marketplace is teeming with scammers with unconvincing stories.
"I always said that I wouldn't sell milk—I'd only donate," Erin, a 22 year-old mother in Wilmington, North Carolina, tells Broadly. "But I was looking for ways to make a little bit of extra cash on the side besides working. I had heard that some people were making decent money selling milk, so I decided to try it. If I was offered maternity benefits, I would definitely be donating breast milk instead."
Erin has lowered her price per ounce from $3.00 to $2.50 to $2.00, yet she's still had trouble making a single sale: "I've pretty much only encountered scammers and a lot of men asking to wet nurse," she says.
Erin and other sellers regularly receive messages from "different" people that share unifying storylines about a wife who died during childbirth and the need to pay by certified check. These buyers also ask for identical inordinate sums of milk and feature carbon-copied faulty grammar and punctuation down to the last ellipsis:
"Am Alison...my wife died when given birth so am in need of breast milk for my baby and i will like to make and Inquire about your breast Milk,I need about 800 to 3000 oz and i also have a shipping agent that will handle the shipping and packaging.so you do not need to bother about the shipping.i will like to ask few questions?
"Am keith...my wife died when given birth so am in need of breast milk for my baby and i will like to make and Inquire about your breast Milk,I need about 800 to 3000 oz and i also have a shipping agent that will handle the shipping and packaging.so you do not need to bother about the shipping.i will like to ask few questions?"
It's unclear what these scammers hope to do with 3000 ounces of breast milk, or why they think a simple name swap will be enough to differentiate one message from the next. Yet, after being ignored on more than one occasion, they keep going:
"Hi, Is this breast milk still available for sale I need 150oz ASAP....I also want you to know that I intend paying with a certified check....If yes please get back to me with the final asking price okay? Paula"
"Hi, Is this breast milk still available for sale I need 150oz ASAP....I also want you to know that I intend paying with a certified check....If yes please get back to me with the final asking price okay? Kim"
Fetishists are another demographic known to actively contact sellers. There are currently over 1,200 listings on the site's "Willing to sell to men" category. While some of those men are single dads, gay couples, or body builders, others are men who get sexual gratification from breast milk. Of those fetishists, some even ask to wet nurse directly from sellers. In one of Erin's messages, for example, a man who went by James wrote, "200.00 for one session if I can :) suck the milk straight from your breasts."
Once sellers are done fielding off scammers and wet nursing enthusiasts, they often have to wait for a serious buyer—the financial benefits of which have been thoroughly documented in articles like this one, this one, and this one—to come their way.
Mario, a 34-year-old father from Manhattan, who manages the sale of his wife's breast milk though Only The Breast, has also struggled to find a serious buyer. "I've probably had maybe two inquires that were serious," Mario tells Broadly. "We haven't sold any milk yet. I've gotten a lot of scammers. There are a lot of people that want to send certified checks, and I can just tell they're not real, local buyers—their English is terrible and their screen names are fake American names to try to fool people."
I was expecting we'd make three or four hundred dollars when we stared—we just had that much milk.
Like Erin, Mario is planning on continuing his sales efforts despite not finding any success. Along with listing on Only The Breast, Mario and his wife are on the waitlist for Mother's Milk Cooperative, which has offered to buy his wife's milk for $1.00 an ounce instead of the $2.00 an ounce he currently asks for. "We have loans, and my wife produces more milk than my son will drink, so we thought we might as well take a shot at it. I was expecting we'd make three or four hundred dollars when we stared—we just had that much milk."
A number of other sellers I reached out to through Only The Breast emailed me citing similar experiences. "I have nothing positive to contribute, as every single lead I have encountered has been a bogus request by kinky men," says one seller, who declined to be named, over email. "I have been contacted four separate times by a troll named Alan with numerous email accounts and aliases. Men appear to be contacting sellers for some sort of fantasy. I have had contact with several other non-legit scammers and men looking for wet nurses. Personally, it is of no interest to me who actually purchases the milk or what they use it for (bodybuilders typically), but I have yet to actually make a sale at all with a real person."
Finally, I met Amanda, a 30-year-old mother from Los Angeles*, who has made nearly $4,000 selling breast milk online. Amanda joined Only The Breast six months ago and has yet to sell to a single man, but she's not opposed to it. "I probably would sell to men if I came across it," she says. "I would prefer to sell to a baby, but I would sell to a man if they paid me enough."
The extra income she's made from the site has allowed one of her family members to stop working and stay home with her daughter—an outstanding feat in a country with such bleak childcare benefits. "It's been wonderful, and the extra money definitely helps," Amanda notes. "There are still so many scammers; I just have to weed through them. They all have the same type of format in their email. It's always like, 'Oh, my wife died and I can't breastfeed the baby.' It's always the same. I just don't even respond to them anymore."
It's been wonderful, and the extra money definitely helps. There are still so many scammers; I just have to weed through them.
Amanda had to work hard to form a trusting relationship with her now loyal clients, diligently answering questions and even taking drug tests to prove her milk is clean. "Some mothers ask a lot of questions and really grill me on my background," she says. "I had one mother make me go and take a drug test and be tested for HIV. She required paperwork. I was willing to do it because she paid me for my time. Then I also had that documentation for future clients so it kind of worked out for me as well."
While most sellers don't end up being as successful as Amanda, they do all come to Only The Breast for the same reason: to make extra cash at a time when they often need it most. Amanda's story is the exciting one the people who run online breast milk markets probably want you to hear, but it is not the only—or even the most common—milk-selling experience.
Despite the fact that many Only The Breast users report difficulty finding a legitimate buyer for their milk, there's a huge demand for it, nationwide: The current U.S. neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) demand for breast milk is 63 million ounces annually, according to the International Milk Bank and a study published in the journal of Breastfeeding Medicine. Yet in 2014, only 9 million ounces of standard breast milk were donated to the NICU. Access to human milk is crucial for the NICU—a special care unit of hospitals that specializes in the care of ill or premature newborn infants—as human milk is easier to digest than formula and helps with the development of a baby's brain and neurological tissues, especially for premature babies. Plus, breast-fed premature babies are less likely to develop intestinal infections than babies who are formula fed.
With some sellers on Only The Breast pricing their milk as low as 75 cents an ounce in a bid to get rid of it and "free up freezer space," and others going so far as to offer breast milk to other users for free, it can seem bizarre that more unwanted milk isn't ending up at the NICU. Unfortunately, these statistics aren't made accessible to anyone casually perusing the website, and Only The Breast's co-founder Glenn Snow declined to speak to Broadly about his business operations.
Most of the milk that does end up at hospitals comes from either non-profit milk bank organizations like the Human Milk Bank Association of North America (HMBANA), or breast milk bio science companies, the main two being Medolac and Prolacta. Neither of these options come cheap to the NICU: while HMBANA charges hospitals a processing fee of $4 to $5 dollars an ounce—a fee it tells Newsweek often doesn't cover its processing costs—Medolac and Prolacta charge hospitals up to $5.90 per ounce.
Because of the need to carefully screen donations for diseases like HIV and hepatitis, there is currently limited infrastructure set up to allow mothers to donate breast milk to hospitals or the NICU directly. Yet, considering the millions of ounces of milk waiting to be given away for next to no money on Only The Breast, there is a noticeable lack of information available on the site explaining where women can donate excess unwanted milk, rather than giving it away for free to other users.
Yet, with childcare costs skyrocketing and unpaid maternity leave the norm, the hopeful unregulated sale of breast milk in America has become a symptom of the abysmal benefits offered to new mothers in this country. A particularly unfortunate result of this is that new mothers—many of whom, like Erin, would be happy to donate milk if they could—end up having to hoard their breast milk in freezers, fending off trolls named Alan in the hopes of finding an unconventional way to support their new families.
*Names and locations have been changed