Liquid Gold: Even Neil Patrick Harris has trouble getting donor breast milk

Breastmilk is often called liquid gold. It is a precious commodity that sustains life and nourishes babies. It isn’t a rare commodity, but if you try to get your hands on some, you might get that impression. Breast milk is not that easy to come by.

In fact, even celebrities with significant financial resources have trouble getting it. Actor Neil Patrick Harris and his partner David Burtka had twin babies (one boy, one girl) via a surrogate in October. His daughter, Harper, has been suffering from intestinal issues and cannot tolerate any of the infant formulas they have tried.

In an article on The Stir, Julie Ryan Evans quotes from Neil Patrick Harris’ recent appearance on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He talks about how logistically complicated it is to get breast milk (noting that if someone close by had breast milk available, it would have to be shipped by plane, pasteurized, and then shipped back) and how expensive it is (“They charge a fortune! It costs more for breast milk than sushi“). In addition to the points made by Harris, most milk banks only provide breast milk for babies who have a prescription from their doctor indicating how many ounces per day are required.

Is this reasonable? The FDA seems to think so. On its website, it “recommends against feeding your baby breast milk acquired directly from individuals or through the Internet” and instead recommends that “if, after consultation with a healthcare provider, you decide to feed a baby with human milk from a source other than the baby’s mother, you should only use milk from a source that has screened its milk donors and taken other precautions to ensure the safety of its milk.” The problem with this position is that this approach is out of reach of most regular people. Donor milk can cost between $2 and $4 per ounce, meaning it can cost between $50 and $100 per day to feed a baby.

Both the American and Canadian governments have been digging in their heels and continuing to tell parents that “Breast is Best” and that they should breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months while at the same time doing nothing to help them reach that goal. In the Ottawa Citizen, columnist Kate Heartfield wrote that the government should do more than scolding mothers:

The advice to expectant parents from every health agency I can find is clear: if a mother can’t produce enough milk for her baby or if breastfeeding is contraindicated, the next-best option is treated milk from another healthy mother. Formula is the third-best option.

So why are most Canadian babies drinking at least some formula by the time they reach six months?

One reason is that the second-best option is very difficult to find. There were once more than 20 milk banks in Canada, but they disappeared in the 1980s. Today, there’s only one, in British Columbia, although there are others in the works in Toronto and Quebec. Parents need prescriptions to get milk from the B.C. bank, which shows just how precious a resource we’re talking about here. It’s not as if breast milk is a dangerous narcotic; the only reason to limit it by prescription is to make sure the babies who need it most are at the front of the line.

The unfortunate reality is that many moms do not produce enough milk — whether for physical reasons or due to bad advice that resulted in a loss of milk supply. Plus, there are same sex male couples, like Harris and Burtka, who also want to give their babies the best.

There are some risks to informal breastmilk sharing, but there are also precautions parents can take to minimize them. When comparing those risks to the many unmitigated risks of formula feeding, it is understandable that more parents are trying to get breastmilk for their babies. It is, afterall, what the health authorities suggest. Since it is so difficult and expensive to get donor breast milk, parents are creating their own solutions. On The Stir, Christie Haskell writes:

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.  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.

If health authorities are for breast milk but against informal milk sharing, why are they so reluctant to put more resources towards the development of a robust breast milk donation system? Are they not willing to put their money where their mouth is? Or are they catering to the interests of the infant formula industry? If following the recommendations of health authorities is almost out of reach for even the most privilieged in our society (rich celebrities), then something obviously has to change.

Annie blogs about the art and science of parenting at the PhD in Parenting blog.

Photo credit: Daquella Manera on flickr


Linda Layne
Linda L7 years ago

@Chinmayee J. More than likely when the surrogate mother knew she would be giving the babies up to Neil and his partner David, she was given an injection after the babies were born that dries up your milk supply quickly. By the time it was discovered the babies couldn't tolerate formula, the surrogate mother would not have had any breast milk to give them.

Diane L.
Diane L8 years ago

Misty, it was only a matter of time before bigotry raised it's ugly head. I agree, it matters not whether the parents are of opposite sex or not. I'm sure Harris didn't think beforehand that it might be an issue......why would he? Formula is readily available. In this case, seems the baby doesn't tolerate it. Even IF he was in a "normal" sexual relationship with a woman, no guarantees that woman would be able to nurse her child, is there? Many of us couldn't.

Delina and Amber, you both should be ashamed of yourselves. Seriously!

Misty K.
Misty K.8 years ago

wow Amber M thats pretty ignorant! even more so because i am mommy 1 of a 2 mommy family...i do breast feed..i cant belive how closed minded people still are..ugh get over yourselves!!! very interesting article none the less

Amber M.
Amber Beasley8 years ago

maybe that's one way of showing that kids are meant to be taken care of by a MAN and WOMAN. HUSBAND and WIFE. children need a mother. not two fathers.

Chavonne Harvey
Chavonne H8 years ago

interesting article.

Alan B.
Alan B8 years ago

Do the politicians have shares in baby formula producers companies?

Sherry B.
Sherry B8 years ago

Again, as with any of these issues, I will bet you that there is a man or men in charge of this issue - Here comes the government to make it an Issue - to make it expensive and unreachable for many - when we are speaking about the health and welfare of the future of our planet - our children. Take the
money away from the schools & give it to the Defense and feed the kids crap for lunch & make sure they can't get any health care, even for expectant mothers - don't pay for birth control or DNC but all the viagra and penile pumps they want are covered by Medicare! Im not saying vote Palin but even Hilary would have been better than this !

Janice S.
Janice S8 years ago

It would be really cool if milk could be donated like blood. There are probably lots of mothers that produce extra milk who would be willing to donate if it were easy. The "volunteer donors" should be tested for free and maybe even given some kind of non monetary incentive. It should be provided at a nominal fee or even free if possible. There are lots of babies who could use it: multible births, mother in poor health, adopted babies (wheather gay or heterosexual couples), orphan babies (especially in the developing world) etc In the meantime, people should be allowed to use milk form friends or family members without having to go through that much drama.

Annie Urban
Annie Urban8 years ago

Sheila N.

Actually, Diane is right. It isn't breastfeeding that changes the shape of a woman's breasts. It is pregnancy (and other things like age, smoking, etc.). Moms who formula feed do not have nice perky breasts while moms who breastfeed have saggy breasts. If they both went through pregnancy, they are both likely to get sagging breasts. The more pregnancies, the saggier they get.

There is more info on that here:

Abbi C.
Abbi C.8 years ago

I would definitely use this, if I absolutely had to. After all I would prefer to feed by breast milk by donor, instead of formula. After all, my cousin had a problem with the formula she bought. It almost killed her daughter. I do not trust formula, after all most companies make it to pad their bottom line.