"Fresh and frozen breast milk! Dairy, alcohol, tobacco-free," reads one advert.
"I’m a healthy, young, organic momma! I have eaten strictly organic foods for about 10 years now!" proclaims another.
And then there’s the depressing caveat that runs at the bottom of most of the ads.
"No adult wet nursing, no pictures, no videos, no checks accepted, and no scams."
The ads above appear on Onlythebreast.com, a website where mothers can sell their breast milk online to other mothers who can’t breastfeed, for whatever reason, and who don’t want to give their babies formula. The milk comes from women who are no longer breastfeeding, or who have spare milk left over after feeding their own child.
Abigail, in Ireland, thought it sounded like a good way to make a bit of extra cash. She had 375oz (10,654 ml – nearly 19 pints) spare after feeding her baby, now 18 months old (for context, on average, a baby drinks around 25oz (750ml) a day in the first six months of their life).
"I produce a lot of milk, and we were struggling financially, so I hoped maybe I could make a little extra to help our family out," she says.
Abigail was looking for €2 an ounce. But things didn’t turn out as planned. The first buyer seemed okay, but then asked Abigail for €200 to pay a 'courier'. She backed away and tried to report them.
Her next potential buyers put her off the website altogether, including one request from a breastfeeding porn website.
"The final straw was about two weeks ago when I got an email from someone saying they were looking for people open to adult wet nursing," she says.
"I just deleted my account after that. I’m still really quite upset over it."
Women trying to buy milk aren’t immune from scams, either. Gabbi Carrillo, in California, was trying to buy milk for her daughter after her own supply dried up when she had to return to work as a security guard, and couldn’t find any locations to pump. Formula gives her daughter, who was three months old at the time, very bad constipation, and she didn’t gain weight on it, either.
She saw someone selling on Facebook, and paid $250 (£189) for 200oz (5,682ml – perhaps a week to 10 days’ worth of food for a baby younger than six months). The milk seemed okay, although it smelled a bit strange, so Gabbi bought a second batch.
"When I went to put it in the freezer, it was water. It wasn’t even white, it was just clear ice water. I was so devastated, because that was $250 that I would have been able to use for formula if I couldn’t find a donor," she says.
"That was the last of the money I had for that pay period – I didn’t even pay my car insurance so I could make sure my daughter was fed."
Luckily, a day or so later, a woman donated 300oz to Gabbi and her daughter for free, but in between, Gabbi had to give her daughter baby food even though she was too young for it. The police could do nothing to help.
The experience has poisoned the whole concept for Gabbi.
"There should be laws saying you’re not allowed to sell breast milk, just like you’re not allowed to sell your blood," she says. Instead, she’d prefer a donor system, like the one which helped her out when she had no other options after being scammed.
While there’s a distinct lack of laws either in the United States or the United Kingdom about this topic, or indeed even a clear chain of who to report scammers to if there is a problem, there are established donation systems. Many of them are communities on Facebook, where women like Gabbi and Abigail can connect and get or donate milk without any money being involved.
It seems like a simpler system, and there are certainly fewer scams in donation-only groups, but it’s more complicated than that. Some campaigners say there’s a feminist argument: why shouldn’t women make money for something that takes time and effort to produce? That’s what Crystal Nelson, in Oregon, thinks. She has three kids of her own, and was recently a surrogate mother, so she has a lot of milk spare. She’s now a prolific seller, with many happy customers – 17 babies in 14 states.
She sells for $1 an ounce, which she says barely covers the costs of shipping, plus the extra food and vitamins and storage equipment she needs. Plus, she pumps eight times a day, around her full-time job, which takes time.
"It’s donating milk regardless if it is compensated or fully donated because it still takes time away from your day, your family, and it takes more food," she says. "And the sense of women coming together, the importance of putting their child’s needs first – you feel like in the big picture, it’s pretty awesome."
She also runs a group dedicated to rooting out scammers in the network, saying the system of women trusting each other will eventually deal with the problems.
The sense of women coming together, the importance of putting their child’s needs first – you feel like in the big picture, it’s pretty awesome.
And while Crystal is particularly active, her positive experiences in selling milk aren’t rare. In many cases, the informal, ad hoc system works – for every scam, there are many happy customers on both sides of the Atlantic (although the selling side of things is much more developed in the United States – Crystal has even sold to one bodybuilder keen to bulk up).
The donation system also works for a lot of people. Kayleigh Robinson, in north Devon, started donating after the birth of her second child. Her first was premature, and her second had sepsis (both are now fine), so she wanted to give something back after all the help she had received in hospital. She’s now donated 30 litres to five or six different mums, all through Facebook.
"I’ve just been doing what I can – it’s my way of giving back. I can help people and babies, and that’s something I can give that’s free. I think it’s one of my biggest achievements," she says.
Gillian Dempster, in Scotland, is on the other side – she found donated milk on Facebook for her son after breastfeeding him herself didn’t work out.
"The lady who helped me continue to give my son breast milk was amazing," she says. "I’ll be eternally grateful for the pumping she did for my son as well as feeding her daughter."
Thanks to both the legitimate scientific evidence of the benefits of breast milk, alongside the pressure some mums feel to give their babies breast milk, these online communities – both for sale and donation – are exploding.
For example, the UK branch of one group set up for milk donation only, Human Milk for Human Babies (HM4HB), now has 19,000 followers. In the US, there are state-by-state groups.
It’s easy to see why: breast milk, or liquid gold, as it’s sometimes known, is hard to obtain any other way. While there are some organised breast milk banks in the US and the UK, the milk donated there is generally reserved for sick and premature babies, and donors face very strict tests before they can donate.
And it’s this lack of testing in the online market, alongside the wider lack of regulations or safeguards across the entire system, which worries some experts.
The Food Standards Agency, for example, does not recommend buying breast milk over the internet at all.
"This is because the source of the milk will not be confirmed as safe and you can’t be sure whether the donor or the milk has been screened for infections," it said in a statement.
This is something that concerns Dr. Natalie Shenker, too. A year or so ago, she set up a new kind of milk bank – operating outside the NHS, it’s a social enterprise with volunteer couriers ferrying the milk from all over the country. The Hearts Milk Bank now provides frozen donated milk to more than 20 NHS hospitals.
The idea came from Dr. Shenker and her business partner’s frustrations at the lack of provision for women and babies across the UK, so they understand why people turn to Facebook. And ultimately, they want all women to be able to access breast milk if they need it for their children. But they remain worried about the existing unregulated system.
"Women have always done this. The Babylonians wrote about wet nursing but it was usually people they knew, sisters, aunties. It wasn’t people meeting in car parks, sharing with strangers they met online," she says.
"Every milk bank fails between 10-20% of the milk that comes in because of bacterial contamination, plus we screen for medications, the caffeine intake, alcohol, smoking and we make sure the milk is stored in bags that are BPA-free. So the question online is – where is that milk coming from?"
She says milk banks should work with the milk-sharing community to introduce more safety considerations.
"It is without doubt risky, and there are ways to make it less risky," she says. "Checklists parents can go through with the donor, or they can learn to do flash pasteurisation at home, there are ways around this which are not rocket science."
The women involved in both the sale and donation communities we spoke to said they already do a lot of checking – Crystal, for example, has references from previous buyers, and other people ask for certificates and medical records.
Research in the US, too, has shown that women take steps to protect themselves and their babies, says Dr. Sally Dowling, a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England who is an expert in breastfeeding and milk donation.
"People talk about risk and there are risks, but I think women do this with an understanding of this and an understanding of how to make judgements," she says.
But she says the most important thing now is to get the conversation out in the open, to make sure that the system is as clear and safe as it can be.
"The way this is portrayed is often either, isn’t it dreadful, or isn’t it wonderful, women supporting each other. And I think it’s somewhere in between," she says.
"And it’s very important to talk about it, because it is happening, and so it’s important that midwives and health visitors know about it. Because otherwise women will do it, and not ask, or ask and not get informed answers."