Michelle Mabry had difficulty producing enough milk for her first son. So when she became pregnant with twins last year, she worried she would have to rely on formula to feed them.

A registered nurse, Mabry had heard about ads to buy breast milk online, but she was leery.

“I knew there were programs to help you get it, but they’re not regulated,” she said. “Those kind of things make you nervous.”

When her twins were born 13 weeks early at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge in April, Mabry didn’t have to choose between using formula or getting donated breast milk that she feared wasn’t properly screened. Alex and Addison Mabry became the first beneficiaries of the new donor breast milk program at Lutheran General, touted to be the first of its kind in the Chicago area.

As evidence has mounted that breast milk is healthier than formula, so, too, has the popularity of selling and donating human milk, said Summer Cassidy, a nurse and lactation educator at Lutheran General. While professional milk banks have established their own standards to help ensure that their supplies are safe, online breast milk networks and advertising have also emerged virtually without regulation, though the Food and Drug Administration warns against using milk procured online.

Lutheran General gets most of its supply from the Indiana Mother’s Milk Bank, which opened six years ago and takes donations from all over the Midwest, said program manager Dane Nutty.

Based in Indianapolis, the bank serves 20 hospitals, mostly for babies in neonatal intensive care. Each supply of donated milk goes through several rounds of screening for evidence of disease, substance abuse or other potential red flags. The supply is also pasteurized and is tested at an independent lab, Nutty said.

“I have to say, I was surprised to hear it was available,” said Mabry. “We felt it was a godsend. The fact that’s it’s available through the hospital is a great thing. My husband and I call it liquid gold.”

Though Mabry wasn’t among them, thousands of other women apparently have taken to the Internet to buy, sell or donate human milk through avenues like Craigslist and more specialized sites like Only the Breast.

Chicago’s Myra Gonzalez was one of them. When her third child was born prematurely in July, Gonzalez, 28, started pumping her milk and soon ran out of room to store it all.

She had heard about people selling breast milk online, so she posted an ad, despite her own reservations about the practice.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable buying breast milk online,” she said. “You never know what kind of people are out there.”

Obviously, some women don’t share her reluctance. Within a few hours of posting her ad, Gonzalez said, she got a response from a mother who had adopted infant twins. Gonzalez is now shipping milk to that mother and another in Arizona on a weekly basis. She charges $1.50 an ounce.

“I really want to help people,” she said. “And if I can get paid for it, why not?”

Gonzalez said she has never met the “customers” she connected with through onlythebreast.com. But the site’s founder, Glenn Snow, said its users find it more rewarding to build a relationship directly with the babies getting their breast milk, which can’t always happen if mothers go through a milk bank.

Only the Breast, which reports more than 6,000 members, is set up to link sellers and donors with recipients. Though the site provides tips on pumping, pasteurizing and shipping, it’s up to individual users to provide for screening or testing of the milk, if they choose, Snow said. Gonzalez said her recipients simply took her word for it that she was healthy.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not been given authority by federal law to regulate the sale or donation of breast milk online or through professional banks, said agency spokeswoman Sandy Walsh.

However, the FDA recommends against feeding babies breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet.

In those cases, “the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk,” said Walsh. “In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby.”

For Gonzalez, at the supply end, the experience hasn’t been entirely positive, either. She said she received a couple of creepy requests from men “who want to buy breast milk for whatever reason. They ask for pictures, whatever they can get out of you.”

Such problems are another reason more hospitals are establishing their own donor programs.

Cassidy, the Lutheran General lactation educator, spent a year putting together the hospital’s program, which, as of early August, had gone through 12 boxes of donated milk — at 50 bottles per box — since Mabry’s babies were born in April.

Cassidy said several local hospitals have contacted her as they prepare to institute their own donor milk programs.

Another group, the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes, which was born through a merger of two Illinois and Wisconsin efforts, is raising funds to build a distribution facility to serve at-risk babies in those states by providing pasteurized human milk by prescription, according to its website. A group representative could not be reached for comment.

For Shauna Miekley, donating her breast milk was an easy decision, especially once she knew it would go to help babies in America and across the world.

Miekley and her husband, Nate, who live in Chicago, had visited Africa a few years ago and seen the suffering of children there. So after their daughter Charlie was born in October, Shauna reached out to the International Breast Milk Project, a nonprofit group that sends milk to malnourished children and orphans in Africa. Miekley was screened and went through a blood test to make sure her milk was safe.

“I look at my daughter and how healthy she is, and I know a big part of that is because I was able to feed her what’s best for her,” Miekley said. “And just knowing that there are other babies that are going to be able to have that because I’ve donated my breast milk, I feel really blessed to be a part of that.”

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