Even Neil Patrick Harris Has Trouble Getting Donor Milk

Harper, twin daughter of Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, was having lots of tummy problems. "She was always in a state of anguish," Harris told The Late Late Show.

Harris said despite multiple formula changes, the couple finally opted to go to donor breast milk for their baby girl. However, even for a celebrity like Dr. Horrible, with his money and resources, he laments the cost of donor milk ("It costs more for breast milk than sushi!") and discussed how the process of obtaining donor milk can be difficult and complicated.

With the lack of milk banks and the unavailability of donor milk for average people, more and more are turning to sharing breast milk outside of milk banks and their pasteurization plants, often via Facebook.


The Human Milk Bank Association of North America (HMBANA) has such strict restrictions on their donors of breast milk that if you've ever had a tattoo, you are not qualified to donate. Their website doesn't say that but notes that other milk banks will have their own additional qualifications, that being one of them.

Lack of funding for milk banks severely limits access to them, despite the fact that it's been proven repeatedly that breast milk would save millions of lives and dollars in medical costs. There are currently only 13 milk banks in the United States, and 1 in Canada (with a second under construction). Celebrities can afford the cost of the milk, and of shipping, but for the majority of people, the cost of the milk alone is prohibitive -- donor milk can often cost $2-4 an ounce.

If they're doing blood tests on all the women, testing the milk itself, and then pasteurizing it, are their restrictions too strict? All babies have different sensitivities -- while a mother who drinks cow's milk might not be an acceptable donor for one child, a mother taking an anti-depressent would likely accept milk from another mother taking the same medication.

Eats on Feets, founded by Emma Kwasnica and Shell Walker, is a social network organized specifically to match up moms who have milk to donate with women who need it for their babies. It is 100 percent non-profit, with absolutely no buying/selling of breast milk allowed. While this kind of sharing allows for more tailored matches like I mentioned above, the lack of blood tests and pasteurization has put organizations like Emma's under fire. The FDA released a statement that strongly warned against casual milk sharing, but agreed that it should remain unregulated.

Women who see an obstetrician during pregnancy often undergo extensive blood work for a wide range of diseases, and it wouldn't be that difficult to request a copy of medical records from a donor, or even to be on a conference call while your donor called her OBGYN's office to have them agree that, yes, her blood tests came up clean. Women willing to go out of their way to pump for another mother, which is no small feat and takes a lot of work, aren't statistically likely to be engaging in dangerous activities to being with, especially when there is no profit to be made. Kwasnica notes it wouldn't be unrealistic to merely ask a potential donor to go be tested at a clinic (health departments screen for STDs free of charge) and have the results available for you to see.

Of course, speculation on safety and personal responsibility isn't enough for some, such as Dr. Ruth Lawrence, who says it needs to be regulated by the FDA. She fears the spread of disease, but notes she would be more supportive of informal milk-sharing if we didn't already have the milk banks we do -- ones that the majority of people can't donate to, have no access to, and can't afford.

The potential for disease can't be ignored -- there is a risk. But if precautions are put into place, like medical records available on request, or as a requirement, is it really that bad? After all, formula also has many, especially the intrinsically non-sterile powdered formula that is available to the most-at risk parties via WIC.

My personal opinion is that we should divert 5 percent of WIC's funds (which would be around $385,000,000) to the building and increase in availability of milk banks across the US, finding ways to allow more donors by using current science on medications and diseases and allowing for different categories of breast milk that are more tailored to different babies. Also, insurance should cover donor milk from a milk banks for women who have seen (also covered by insurance) an IBCLC, not just the hospital's lactation consultant), and had it determined that they need either full or partial supplementation. It should certainly be covered routinely for infants in the NICU, and adopted newborns.

What would you do to get breast milk to as many babies as possible, while reducing risks?

Image via CBS; Eats on Feets

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