I believe in human milk for human babies

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:

International Breastfeeding Symbol Blog (Mamabear)

The Leaky B@@b: Because it could be my baby

Milk sharing: from private practice to public pursuit

PhD in Parenting — Breast Milk: Not a Scarce Commodity

Offbeat Mama: Why I choose to cross-nurse babies

13 thoughts on “I believe in human milk for human babies

  1. You gave a wonderful gift to those families! And to your own, teaching them that kind of generosity. It is so great that the idea of milk sharing is coming back into the mainstream, that we are relearning that breastmilk is such a thing to be treasured, that we can be blessed to be able to share.

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Jennifer! Indeed, I considered it a blessing not only that I had milk to share, but that the families allowed me into their lives to give such a gift. I can say for certain that my life was changed by the experience, each time. 🙂

  2. Thanks for your splendid first-person account of what mothers of good will have been doing for other mothers and their babies since pre-history. You were perhaps a little ahead of your time and environment in wanting to talk about it in 2006; but no more as informal mother-to-mother milk sharing has become both ordinary and public in more than 50 countries in less than a year. Readers may be interested in this related commentary http://www.internationalbreastfeedingjournal.com/content/6/1/8, which is available for download at no cost.

    James Akre, Geneva, Switzerland

    • Oh my gosh, James Akre commented on my blog!! (I’ve been a fan of your work for years and am thrilled you found my post of interest.)

      I will add the link you shared directly to my blog post. My deepest gratitude to you for the work you’ve done to promote and normalize breastfeeding and breastmilk feeding throughout the world!

  3. In 2006, I was a breastmilk recipient, and in 2007, I created the International Breastfeeding Symbol website. I, too, am celebrating the first-ever World Milksharing Week. Please link to my blog or to whichever story suits your fancy. I have two more in the queue (one for each day that remains of the celebratory week), so you might want to wait for those first (they’re the best ones!) 🙂

    Thanks for the great post!

  4. I’m interested in the mechanics of pumping while tandem nursing. I’m nursing my 2 year old and expecting another this summer, and have grand plans to pump for donation as well (I had a rocking supply with my first before pregnancy so I don’t doubt that I’ll have extra), but as I get closer to actually doing it I’m having a hard time visualizing how I will make it work (the 2 year old is very much in love with the boobie and I anticipate him wanting the breast every time the newborn gets it, too). I have a good double pump and a hands free support, so there’s that at least.

    • Hi Melissa, thanks for reading. I was in this situation, as well. I made sure both of my children got everything they needed (if I remember correctly, the toddler only got my “slower” side every nursing, baby switched sides as I felt necessary but drank from both — I also was a robust producer), and I left the pump assembled and the bottles, with the flanges screwed into them, in the refrigerator. When I had a few minutes, I’d sit down and pump whatever I could. I’d also pump after the toddler was asleep and the baby nursed. The key for me, though, was going the whole day and pumping into the same bottles — just wiping the flanges and collecting milk in the same bottles until they were full, then transferring it to whatever vessel I was using to transport it. I hope this helps and thank you for your gift of human milk to a baby who needs it! 🙂

  5. Pingback: When the media spins the biological norm « normal, like breathing

  6. Pingback: Milksharing: a story of peace and healing « normal, like breathing

  7. Hi Diana. I love reading all your posts as I lay with my sleep-nursing, six-month-old son. I’m going way back in your archives. 🙂
    I have a question about something you said in this post. You said you pumped for your children “because of an alteration to the biological norm, a deviation in what we were created to be.” I was curious what you meant by that? Was it returning to work when you should have been with your kids?
    I ask because I returned to work when he was five months. I still cry when I go in to the office. I told my husband it feels like I’m betraying myself, my values.
    But, I’m curious what you mean about biological norms?

    • Yes! Going back to work away from my babies was the deviation in the biological norm, which is mother-baby togetherness. (Note this is not a value judgement on those who separate by choice or necessity, only a statement of the fact … it’s a deviation from the norm to be away from our babies.)

      Thanks for reading my blog!

      • Thanks for your reply.

        Well, this confirms me not being crazy for the intensity of my need to be with my baby. Although I still have to work, it helps to understand my feelings. Pure biology! Moms and babies should be together.

        How does one come to peace with this when she still feels guilt, conflicted? That’s what I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

      • Hi Shannon,

        My kids are almost 11, 9, and almost 6. While I’m not sure I have ever reached a place of peace when I separate from them, I do suppose there comes a time (this will be different for each child) when our children grow and learn new things when they’re apart from us. I suppose the keys to finding the balance include weighing the benefits of separating (income, career, stability) against the risks; evaluating periodically as the needs of the child evolve (they never stop needing us, this I’ve discovered — the needs just change) and figuring out what works for your family.

        You are definitely not crazy or alone in your feelings! Those early years were really hard for me. I still spend a lot of time centering, physically, with my children when we are together. Instead of nursing, we snuggle or sit close while we watch a movie together. We do a lot of hugs and back scratches, hand massages, whatever they need to feel close. I’m still their home base, and I’m thankful.

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