How one mom used another woman's breast milk to feed her children
By Laura Minton Gonzales
My cousin’s wife, Jessica, sent me a picture time-stamped “three years ago today” of my son, then a tiny newborn, drinking from a bottle. She added a message that made me smile: “Sweet baby boy drinking my milk!” with a dozen heart emojis.
I had taken that picture myself three years ago and sent it to her then, and now the memory of those busy days feeding her milk to my babies resurfaced. I have a special bond now to Jessica, because she fed my babies with her own milk when I had none to give them. We participated in a practice commonly known as “milk sharing.”
Milk sharing refers to the process of expressed (pumped) milk being given from one mother to another to use for a baby. This can be done either formally or informally.
Formal milk sharing involves a breast milk bank, usually a non-profit, functioning as the middle man, often connecting mothers who do not personally know each other. Milk banks follow strict guidelines, testing the donors for diseases and screening them for the use of prescribed medications or illegal drugs, the use of tobacco, or the abuse of alcohol. The milk is then pasteurized to eliminate any infecting organism that could be present in the milk.
Informal milk sharing, on the other hand, is when a mom gives milk directly to the parents of the babies in need. This is what Jessica and I did. This can be done through family or community connections, websites dedicated milk sharing, or other social media connections.
It’s important to note that because there are certain risks that come with informal sharing (such as the fact that it is untested and the mother is not screened for diseases,) I would not have practiced informal milk sharing with anyone that I did not personally know and trust as much as I trusted Jessica.
I would not have practiced informal milk sharing with anyone that I did not personally know and trust as much as I trusted Jessica.
After I found out I was pregnant with twins, Jessica reached out to me and became my unofficial pregnancy consultant and my confidant. Scrolling back through our messages of my frantic, naïve, and awkward questions and her calm reassurances from knowledge and experience, I am reminded of how much she was there for me before my children were even born.
When I was still in my first trimester of pregnancy, she casually mentioned that if she ran out of room to store her quickly growing surplus of expressed breast milk, she would donate to us.
Then she added, perhaps afraid that she had crossed a line, “Unless you think that’s weird.”
I jokingly replied, “It’s only weird if you make it weird.”
In all honesty, we would gladly accept the help. Faced with the anxiety of being a first-time mom — of twins — I quickly learned this lesson: take all the help you can get. I just didn’t know how much I would need that help later.
I quickly learned this lesson: take all the help you can get. I just didn’t know how much I would need that help later.
About a month before the babies were born, we met up with Jessica and loaded a cooler full of breast milk into our car, and then into our freezer. I wasn’t sure how much I would need it, but I felt more comfortable knowing it was there.
I understood that breast milk is the perfect food for infants. It contains the vitamins, protein, and fat that are essential for babies at each stage. I knew that breastfed babies are often healthier, as breast milk helps them fight off viruses and bacteria and it lowers their risk of having asthma or allergies.
I knew all of this and I planned to breastfeed, but the thought of feeding two babies (when I had never fed any) just seemed overwhelming. The liquid gold in the freezer gave me some peace of mind.
I had no doubts about the quality of the milk. Jessica was super mom. She is the type of person who does nothing half-hearted. She works hard, she moms hard, and she does the research to make sure that she’d doing the best she can at any task she takes on.
Later, when my children’s pediatrician heard that they were drinking someone else’s milk, she asked, “Do you trust this person?”
I answered, “Wholeheartedly.”
After my babies were born via C-section, I was wheeled into the recovery room where my babies were placed in the crooks of my arms like tiny footballs so that they could suck from my breasts. The lactation consultant was there coaching me and she visited with me often throughout the stay at the hospital. No matter how hard I tried, though, and no matter how well my daughter latched, it seemed like they weren’t getting any milk. I was pumping regularly in the hospital, but there was nothing in the little bottles and I knew my babies weren’t getting any food.
No matter how hard I tried, though, and no matter how well my daughter latched, it seemed like they weren’t getting any milk.
So, under the whispered advice of nurses, we supplemented with formula at the hospital. They reminded me that “fed is best.”
Back at home, I stayed determined, attempting to breastfeed and finding time to pump, but the most I could ever get was half an ounce in a bottle. I sent a picture of my measly half ounce to Jessica, and she cheered me on — but I could feel myself giving up.
Meanwhile, we used her milk, generously stocked in our freezer, to feed the babies. After two weeks of trying, utterly exhausted from lack of sleep and still recovering from my C-section, I gave up trying.
I felt like I was letting down my biggest fan. She offered to give me some tips, but clarified, “BUT I respect your decision and if you don’t want to, that’s awesome, too…It’s not the best thing for you if you dread it and you’re not happy. You have to be happy!”
Jessica showed me the true definition of support and selflessly gave my babies the greatest gift. Jessica’s milk fed my babies for the first full three weeks of life. When she dropped off the milk, she excitedly pointed out to me the one that contained valuable colostrum ( a mother’s “first milk” which is highly concentrated and nutrient dense), and we made sure the babies got those first. It seemed like an endless cycle of thawing, warming, and feeding, but it provided my babies with a healthy nourishment when they most needed it.
It seemed like an endless cycle of thawing, warming, and feeding, but it provided my babies with a healthy nourishment when they most needed it.
After coming out of the fog of new motherhood, I read about the wide number of reasons for mothers to have low breast milk supply. There are so many factors that can affect it, including: lack of sleep, stress, dehydration, alcohol, birth control, infrequent feedings, certain medications. Personally, I think I was too dehydrated (and the lack of sleep didn’t help). I have a tendency to not drink enough water, and in the hospital, they had left my IV in longer than usual because I was dangerously close to dehydration. I count this as the primary reason I was unable to produce, but it is certainly not the only one that might affect a new mother, and not the only reason to accept breast milk donations.
Breast milk donations are needed for other reasons besides low supply, reasons like:
· Adopted or fostered babies
· Having had a double mastectomy
· Having had previous surgeries that affected milk supply
· Being treated with certain medications that are not recommended for breastfeeding
· Having an infectious illness that could be passed to baby through breast milk
There are many breast milk banks available with safe and tested milk for mothers who don’t have a Jessica in their life and are in need of donor milk.
If you are interested in donating a your personal surplus of breast milk to a mother in need, or if you yourself are in need, the best place to go is the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.
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Laura Minton Gonzales is a contributor to the Public Goods Blog, a publication about health, sustainability and people making an impact. Check it out for a wide range of topics: everything from product reviews and food trends to fair trade and the fluoride controversy.