In 2006, I wrote this essay for This I Believe, which at the time was a regular feature on National Public Radio. My essay was never read aloud on NPR, perhaps because it wasn’t well-written, or maybe because the topic wasn’t ready for public consumption yet. At the time, I was advised not to tell people I was sharing my milk with babies who needed it, lest people think I was a fanatic or doing something unorthodox. This notion, this opinion that I needed to keep my milk-sharing a secret, made no sense to me — I was healthy, had more than enough for my own babies, and … I was feeding this milk to my own babies! Why shouldn’t a mother feed her baby my milk, the milk of another human mother she knew, before she fed him milk made from cows she hadn’t ever met?
Now, in 2011, what the World Health Organization has been saying for years, that donor milk is the biologically normal supplement to mother’s own milk, is practically common knowledge. Today’s mothers can benefit from information that allows them to make a truly informed choice. Some may still choose to feed cow’s milk-based or other formula to their babies, but thanks to initiatives like World Milksharing Week, the concept of human milk for human babies doesn’t have to stay underground anymore!
There are informal milksharing arrangements, such as those arranged through people we know or networks like Human Milk 4 Human Babies, which provides an outstanding FAQ page for families considering the use of donor milk. There is also a more formal method of obtaining breastmilk, usually short-term, and for a baby who is premature or sick. This involves using a milk bank — here in North America, a family would contact the Human Milk Banking Association of North America milk bank nearest to them for assistance. Milk from a milk bank has been collected from several screened donors, pooled, pasteurized, and is distributed by prescription for babies who need it.
I have been lactating and breastfeeding my own three children for nearly 9 years (no break!). In addition to my own children, there are three other children, all of whom I’ve met, who have been nourished by the milk my body made.
The first was an adopted baby who came to a family just north of where I live. I don’t remember how I got connected to his parents, but I and another local mother happily pumped our milk so that they could bottle-feed human milk to their baby. I was tandem nursing my older two children, the younger of which had just turned a year old. The parents’ co-worker, who lived in my town, stopped by twice a week to pick up the cooler I had packed with bags of my milk. The parents sent me pictures of their growing boy and thanked me often for my gift to him. I met the whole family in person 2 years later, at the farm we all got our CSA shares from. A few tears were shed and hugs were exchanged when I recognized the boy and said “I’m Diana,” to his mother. My children were excited to learn that the cute little toddler was their “milk brother.”
The second was the child of a dear friend, the one I wrote about in the This I Believe essay. I pumped for her when she was first born (but didn’t have a whole lot to give her), and again about two months before her first birthday, when my own baby was born. I had so much milk to share, since I was tandem nursing (my middle child spent most of his almost four breastfeeding years sharing with his sisters). My friend told me her husband, upon seeing the supply of my milk I dropped off every few days, exclaimed “Diana could feed the world!” I loved that idea, and was so happy that each ounce I was able to give them was one less ounce that little girl had to be artificially fed in her at-breast supplementer. Her mother took many measures to produce about half of what her baby needed, and the donors they found (I was one of a few) helped make up the difference.
The third was a baby whose birth was attended by the same midwife that was at the birth of my third child. I was tandem nursing my younger two children, had lots of milk, and wasn’t going back to work for a few months. My friend’s baby had turned a year old, and didn’t need all I had to offer, so for about a month, I was able to donate to this third family. That baby’s mother had hormonal imbalances as a result of PCOS, and her body didn’t make all the milk her baby needed to thrive. I didn’t stay connected to her after my last contribution, around the time my own baby was three months old and I needed what I pumped for her when I went back to work.
I was, of course, proud to be able to provide milk for the three babies who received it, three babies who were not my own. To me, however, it was remarkable that I actually enjoyed pumping for them — remarkable because I despised pumping for my own children when we were separated. The difference? I had to pump for my own babies because of an alteration to the biological norm, a deviation in what we were created to be. I was thankful that pumping helped us sustain our breastfeeding relationship, but I would much rather have been directly breastfeeding my babies. Pumping for those other babies, though, brought them a step closer to biologically normal than they might otherwise have been without me; my pumping made human milk available to those human babies.
I’m excited that Human Milk 4 Human Babies has launched this first annual World Milksharing Week, and eager to share other blogs or articles about it — so please call them to my attention! I urge you to click on and read the links below: