A quick search on Craigslist shows local moms are selling their excess breast milk for $1 an ounce.
The benefits of breast milk include:
Fighting disease, especially a condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, which can kill premature babies.
Helping mothers bond with their babies.
Providing health benefits for moms by lowering risk of diabetes, ovarian cancer and postpartum depression.
In Atlanta, the going rate for human breast milk is twice that much.
How to donate
Mothers who produce more milk than their babies need often just "pump and dump" it. But health care providers realize how valuable and scarce this extra milk is, especially for very sick, premature babies whose mothers have difficulty breastfeeding. They are hoping to tap into local moms' collective goodwill to donate their extra milk instead of throwing it away.
The South Carolina Milk Bank will offer a way for South Carolina moms to donate later this year at milk depots throughout the state. Women can pump their milk at home and simply drop it off at one of these satellite locations. The locations of these sites are still in development.
Until then, Roper St. Francis Healthcare is in the final stages of negotiating an agreement with the Mothers' Milk Bank in Austin, Texas.
A spokesman for the hospital system said the agreement would designate both St. Francis Hospital and Mount Pleasant Hospital as drop-off sites for donated milk from moms who have been screened and approved by the milk bank. The donations will be shipped to Austin and will guarantee that donated milk is eventually available for babies who need it in the Lowcountry. Mothers will not be paid for their donations.
For more information, call the Roper St. Francis Lactation Line at 402-1356.
Believe it or not, even $2 an ounce is pretty cheap as far as breast milk goes.
The Medical University of South Carolina spends $5 an ounce for breast milk shipped from the nonprofit Mothers' Milk Bank in Austin, Texas. Palmetto Health Richland spends even more than that. The Columbia-based hospital buys its breast milk from a California company called Prolacta, which sells its fortified product for $14 an ounce.
Of course, unlike breast milk bought and sold between moms on the Internet, the milk purchased by hospitals is tested for safety and sanitation, which makes it more expensive. Health care experts unequivocally caution mothers against buying breast milk from strangers online.
"In fact, there is a tremendous amount of breast milk sold on the Internet. It's awful because you don't know what you're getting," said BZ Giese, director of the South Carolina Birth Outcomes Initiative.
Still, breast milk is a hot commodity, both online and through legitimate breast milk banks.
There's a short supply of donated breast milk in the United States, which is one of the reasons MUSC is preparing to launch the South Carolina Milk Bank later this year. Doctors say the state needs its own milk bank to ensure that the sickest, very low birth-weight babies have access to this milk for survival.
Mothers who deliver prematurely often have trouble feeding their own babies because they can't produce enough milk. Formula milk, a viable alternative for healthy newborns, can be dangerous, even fatal, for very small, sick infants.
When Holly Edmunds of Mount Pleasant delivered twins 17 weeks before her due date on Oct. 4, her son, Aldrich, survived for weeks at MUSC on donated breast milk from the milk bank in Austin. Aldrich's twin brother, Andrew, died shortly after birth.
"Your body has been through a lot of stress delivering early," which makes it difficult for a new mother like Edmunds to pump milk for her baby, said Dr. Sarah Taylor, an MUSC neonatologist and one of Aldrich's doctors. "The emotional stress of having pre-term babies is difficult."
Donor milk is given to all babies born at MUSC before 30 weeks gestation if their mothers can't produce milk, Taylor said. Very low birth-weight, premature babies in the MUSC neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) typically need between three and six ounces of breast milk a day, she said.
That's why a steady supply of donated human breast milk is so important, she said, especially because there is no guarantee that the Austin milk bank can satisfy the demand for the product.
"Right now, there's such a need for donor milk that Austin has more requests than it can fill," Taylor said.
The South Carolina Milk Bank will be housed at MUSC, but mothers around the state will be able to donate breast milk at satellite milk bank depots. Mothers will not be paid for their donations, she said, because the venture is nonprofit.
It also will likely reduce the cost that hospitals in South Carolina spend on donated milk. Taylor estimates breast milk donated by South Carolina moms and distributed to South Carolina hospitals will cost about $3 an ounce through the new milk bank.
"Right now, I estimate that we're using 1,100 ounces per week in NICUs in South Carolina," Taylor said. "To give donor milk to all of the babies that we would even like to start giving milk to, we'd probably need to be bringing in 3,000 ounces a week of donor milk."
Healthy moms can pump about 10 ounces of extra milk after feeding their babies each day, Taylor estimated.
Giese, the Birth Outcomes Initiative director, said the South Carolina Medicaid agency may help contribute some state funding for the milk bank because breast milk donations would benefit very low birth-weight babies in NICUs throughout the state.
The milk will be shared among infants at MUSC, Palmetto Richland, Greenville Health System, McLeod Health Hospital in Florence and Spartanburg Regional Hospital. These hospitals are designated by the state to treat the sickest premature babies in South Carolina.
"This is a good thing to do," Giese said. "We want South Carolina moms to have everything they need for their babies."
Taylor said MUSC plans to launch the South Carolina Milk Bank this year with or without the state investment. She estimates it will cost $200,000.
Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.