In an effort to demystify milk sharing, for the next few weeks we will be sharing stories from breastfeeding moms who either donated their excess breastmilk or supplemented their baby with someone else’s milk. For more information about milk sharing, both informal and through milk banks, please visit our article: Supplement Options: Donor Milk, Milk Banks, and Formula, as well as our Boob Group podcast episode, Low Milk Supply: Donor Milk, Milk Banks, and Formula.
Today on the San Diego Breastfeeding Center blog, I am honored to share Cara's story, which demonstrates how a sense of community can blossom through supplementing with and donating breast milk. If you would like to submit your story to be shared with our readers, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you so much, Cara, for sharing your inspiring story with us! Your daughter is so lucky to have you as her mother!
I feed my daughter a mix of my breast milk, formula and donated breast milk from 5 different women. Not only has donated breast milk benefitted my daughter's digestion and overall health, it has introduced me to other moms that I'm now proud to consider part of my community.
We were only two days postpartum, after a beautiful unmedicated birth, when the first hospital-based lactation consultant looked at my breasts and her face fell a little bit. She informed me with a matter of fact tone that I might have breast hypoplasia/Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT). She said not to try too hard or be too hard on myself, as physiologically I might never make enough milk for my daughter. It turns out, she was right. When my milk finally came in, my daughter only transferred 10ml per feeding - less than half an ounce. However, through herbal supplements, medication, and pumping after each feeding I've managed nearly 4 months later to increase that amount to 20-30ml per feeding, but that's another story for another time. Bottom line: I've only ever made 8-10 ounces of breastmilk a day, max. Not nearly enough for my daughter. So at 4 days postpartum, after my daughter's weight dropped too far and my milk supply was not increasing: my husband helped me begin supplementing with formula using a syringe and feeding tube at the breast. I was just relieved to have a plan, and as my daughter thrived I was grateful for formula and the nourishment it was offering my baby.
At 6 days postpartum we met with a local IBCLC. She guided us on how to continue trying to increase my milk supply, and in the meantime how much to supplement. And she also mentioned donor milk.
I originally brushed off the idea of donor milk. While it made sense since human breast milk is the best food for babies, it seemed like it would be awkwardly intimate to use another mother's milk, and I was also afraid of disease. My husband and I were not in a place to pay the high price for formal milk bank donor milk, and informal channels made me nervous. I was also clinging to the hope that all the work I was putting into making my own breast milk would pay off and I might someday be able to exclusively breastfeed. A few weeks later, however, I had to come to the painful realization that would never happen. I cried as I realized I would be supplementing my daughter’s diet with either formula or donor milk for the long-term.
So I began looking into donor breast milk. I checked out the Human Milk for Human Babies Facebook pages, but was too uncomfortable with the idea of taking milk from strangers, so I sent an exploratory email to the moms I know in the area, asking if they or anyone they knew had extra milk they could donate. Somehow breast milk from friends or friends of friends made me a lot more comfortable. I only sent that email to 6 other mamas, but one friend responded that her friend had some extra milk due to an oversupply. Another friend/co-worker responded that she herself was weaning her toddler, and had just stopped pumping at work. She offered to resume pumping once a day and donate that milk to us. I was blown away with gratitude - what a gift… but, also nervous. Do we trust other milk enough to feed it to our daughter? My husband and I made a decision together: to trust. We decided these moms were feeding this milk to their own babies, so we would choose to feed it to our baby as well.
I first accepted donated breast milk from my friend and co-worker. I supplied her with breast milk storage bags which she filled and labeled. For her it was very little milk, just 4 ounces or so a day, but for us and my young baby that was a significant amount. I was so grateful, and felt humbled. This was a gift I could never repay. I would normally be uncomfortable with this imbalance - accepting a gift I couldn't repay - but was willing to do anything for my baby. And my friend's attitude helped tremendously - she was so kind and sweet and seemed honored to give this gift to my baby. A few days later, this friend texted me asking if my daughter liked her milk. I laughed as she explained that it felt like she'd made a casserole for someone -- and wanted to know if she liked it! My daughter certainly liked her milk, and I texted her a picture of my daughter in a post-meal milk-drunk stupor with a happily full tummy. After all - that happily full tummy was the reason we were doing all of this.
The friend-of-the-friend was also incredibly kind, and we set up a time to pick up the milk from her. She made me comfortable by asking if we were OK with the two cups of coffee she has in the morning. Just her awareness of this issue made me feel she was a conscientious Mama aware of how her breast milk could affect her baby, and my baby. She did request that we not tell her husband - as he would be weirded out by it all. This honestly made me a little uncomfortable as I was so recently myself overcoming the 'weirdness' factor. But she also seemed honored to help out and with an oversupply was happy her milk was going to good use.
I then met a woman with oversupply at a breastfeeding support group. She was exclusively pumping and had repeated bouts with mastitis so was pumping far more than her daughter needed in a day. I picked up some donated breast milk from her - feeling comfortable because we'd met a couple times at group, and I knew she'd struggled to do her best for her baby. We laughed a bit sadly as we realized we were in similar conundrums. Both pumping all the time - me in an effort to build supply and her in an effort to stave off mastitis. She seemed happy to help my daughter, and I promised to provide her with replacement breast milk storage bags. Somehow - buying donor moms breast milk storage bags feels like I'm repaying them just a bit - or at least making it a bit easier for them.
By 8 weeks of age my daughter was thriving with about a quarter to a third of her diet coming from my breast milk, and the rest a mix of formula and donor milk. I was first afraid to tell my daughter's pediatrician that we were using donated milk. At my daughter's two month appointment I tentatively brought up donor milk - then quickly mentioned I was aware of the risks of contracting diseases and the like. Our pediatrician didn't seem fazed at all that I was using donated breast milk - and she even encouraged it. She brought up the fact that women with new babies have been tested for infectious disease during their prenatal care - so the risks are very low. She was very comfortable with us feeding my daughter donated breast milk, which made me even more comfortable myself!
I was also so grateful for the donated breast milk as it also seemed to help my daughter’s tummy, as she began struggling with constipation from the iron in formula. We switched formulas to a brand we thought was better and cheaper - double bonus. However, my daughter started straining to pass hard little pellets, and stopped eating as much. We were very concerned. We began to consider giving her apricot nectar to help her bowels and with the hope she would start eating enough again. However, before the fruit juice, I wanted to try one more thing - my friend/co-worker had just given us about 12 ounces of breast milk so instead of spreading that amount out over a couple of days, I decided to try feeding it to her all in one day to see if it helped her tummy. It did! It made me sad to realize formula was affecting her so negatively, but so happy to have a tool on hand - donated breast milk - to help my daughter gently. We switched back to a brand of formula we knew worked better for my daughter, but she still had sluggish bowels.
Having seen the benefit of breast milk on my baby's tummy I decided to give Human Milk for Human Babies a try - milk from strangers. This decision was also encouraged by an internet community I had found of other mamas with low milk supply - some of whom were exclusively feeding their babies with donated breast milk from many different mamas. I posted a request on the Human Milk for Human Babies Southern California page on Facebook. Immediately after posting I panicked realizing the post might go up on other people’s news feeds. While my husband and I had become comfortable with donated breast milk, and I was open about my low milk supply struggles with friends and family, I was NOT open about using donated breast milk. I just didn't want to have to defend our decision, when we had been a bit conflicted about it ourselves. I'm still not sure if it went up publicly or not, but I decided to only deal with it if someone brought it up. They didn't.
First a woman in Anaheim asked if I would make the 3-4 hour round trip drive up there to get breast milk from her. I decided I wouldn't. I wanted donated breast milk for my baby, but formula was working OK and I decided the time in the car in Southern California highway traffic was not worth it for me and my daughter. Then another woman private messaged me saying she was in the area, had never donated before, didn't have any diseases, only had small amounts of alcohol after her infant daughter goes to bed for the longest stretch between feedings, and had some frozen breast milk that was about to expire and needed to be used. Her message made me feel comfortable, and I messaged her back thanking her for her openness and explaining I had never accepted milk from a connection with a stranger on a website before. We decided to meet for the first time at a mall near me, as she was going to the Hollister nurse-in.
It felt kind of like a Craigslist sale, meeting this stranger to exchange goods, except without the financial component. I texted her telling her to look for a woman wearing a sleeping baby in a baby carrier (me)- then she walked up wearing her daughter in a baby carrier as well - and with a large cooler full of frozen breast milk. Her husband and older son were with her, but as we started talking breastfeeding and postpartum struggles they wandered away. She sort of smiled and said her husband had wanted to come with her to meet this stranger from the internet. We laughed and then I wondered: why the heck was I so willing to just go meet a stranger from the internet without anyone with me?! Minutes after meeting her I'd felt comfortable. She was a mama with plenty of breast milk who stored some up when her daughter was much younger - and as the frozen milk neared its expiration date, she didn't want it going to waste. We are both moms who knew breast milk was best for our babies, and both moms doing our best to provide what we can. We've stayed in touch, as she might have some more milk for us in the future as she easily pumps above and beyond her daughter's needs. Even if she doesn't, we are grateful for the gift she has given us.
Since then, I met another mom in a breastfeeding support group, also exclusively pumping and with more milk than her daughter needs. After meeting her a few times and running into her in my neighborhood, she insisted she could begin providing us with fresh breast milk every couple of days. I accepted. Once again, I felt comfortable as I knew she was doing the best she could for her baby and attending support groups for support. Since then I've enjoyed meeting up with her for walks as we compared the struggles of new mama-hood.
I still sometimes have fears of my daughter contracting a communicable disease - or imagine the horror of a donor realizing she has something she didn't know she had - but have decided that the benefits outweigh the risks. I'm not yet open with family about the fact that we're using donor milk. Perhaps that's an indicator that I'm still not 100% OK with it, but mostly I think it's because I just don't want to have to defend our decision. The heartbreak of low milk supply is something I've learned to speak rather matter of factly about -- but how we choose to feed our daughter is nobody’s business, but our own. Who we choose to involve in that decision (for example: our pediatrician, our lactation consultant) is just that - our choice. Perhaps over time I'll be more open about the donor milk that is helping to nourish my daughter -- writing up our experience like this is a start!
Thanks to my breast milk, donated breast milk, and formula my daughter is thriving. Thanks to donated breast milk I've gotten to know other moms in a new way and we've built a community I never even dreamed we'd have. I am just so grateful for this gift other moms have given my daughter!