If you’ve visited my blog before, you know that I believe in human milk for human babies, and I have a deep understanding and empathy for those mothers who can’t or choose not to breastfeed their babies, for whatever reason. This week, World Milksharing Week, offers a perfect opportunity to highlight a beautiful story of love and healing, of generosity and peace that have been made possible by the gifts of milk donors.
First, be sure to check out this comprehensive report about mother-to-mother milksharing, by Amber McCann, IBCLC, and, from the International Breastfeeding Journal, Milk sharing: from private practice to public pursuit.
Stephanie was heartbroken after her first baby, Isaiah, was born and she realized she couldn’t make enough milk to meet his nutritional needs and sustain his growth. A condition called mammary hypoplasia/insufficient glandular tissue (IGT) made it so that she could only produce about 4 ounces of milk each day; she had to supplement Isaiah’s intake with something other than her own milk, and at the time, commercially-prepared baby milk (formula) was, as far as she knew, her only option. “I knew there was such a thing as donor breastmilk, but I thought it was only for sick babies,” Stephanie explains. “We supplemented with just about every formula under the sun,” Stephanie recalls. Isaiah had an undiagnosed cow’s milk protein intolerance; watching him suffer, and knowing the cow’s milk-based formula was likely to blame was very difficult. Stephanie felt as if her body had failed her baby, and every day, every supplemental feeding, the pain of this feeling was new. “When I was pregnant again, I heard about mother-to-mother milk sharing on the IGT support page on Facebook and immediately knew this was what I wanted to do.”
During her pregnancy, Stephanie began visiting and posting her story to various mother-to-mother milksharing websites, such as Eats on Feets, Human Milk 4 Human Babies, and MilkShare. She met profound empathy, generosity, and support in these online communities, and, over time, received donated milk from more than 10 mothers in 5 states – over 4000 ounces total. Her first connection, however, was to a mother named Shelly.
Shelly lives an hour away from Stephanie, in southern Maine. The first time she traveled to pick up the milk Shelly was donating to her and her baby, Elliot, Stephanie had to ask friends to loan her coolers – six of them – so they’d be able to keep all of the milk cold on the trip home. “I couldn’t believe it! Our 7 cubic-foot freezer was nearly full after that first donation!” In her two trips to Shelly’s house, Stephanie acquired over 3000 ounces of milk.
The milk wasn’t all Shelly shared, however, and it wasn’t the only thing Stephanie and Elliot gained. The two families became friendly, the dads enjoying each other’s company while the moms gathered Shelly’s milk and supervised their little ones, who, at the last pick-up, were delighted by an impromptu play-date. “The connection was immediate, we clicked,” Stephanie says. “It felt right. The thought that a mother — and her child — would care so much as to aid us in our goals is truly heartwarming. The generosity that she has bestowed upon us leaves me in tears every time I think about it. We could never be grateful enough for the hearts of these mothers.”
For Stephanie, the ability to nourish Elliot on human milk alone meant a great deal to her, especially after her experience of watching Isaiah struggle with a substitute. “No greater joy could I have than to know that, despite my severely low milk supply, my child is still able to exclusively receive the benefits of human milk. The healing that I have found with donor milk is more than I can put into words. The peace that Shelly, and all of the other wonderful donors, have given me is more than I could have ever imagined.” Stephanie goes on to say that being able to fill an at-breast supplementer with “liquid love” (donor milk) and breastfeed Elliot, just like women without IGT do, has been life-changing for her. “The healing I have found with this is incredible. IGT isn’t easy. There’s nothing easy about it. But what a blessing to have a nursing relationship in the first place, no matter how little I make! This has brought me so much peace.” While her baby, now 16 months old, has weaned since about a month ago, Shelly continues to pump milk for Elliot, who is 7 months old now. She shares in Stephanie’s desire to provide human milk through Elliot’s first year, and feels the joy of the impact she is making in Elliot’s life.
Even after that year goes by, Stephanie knows that Shelly and the other mothers who have assisted with her breastfeeding journey will hold a permanent place in her family’s heart. She hopes her friendship with Shelly will be enduring as their children grow up and breastfeeding becomes a memory for both families. Stephanie says “I will forever be indebted to Shelly and the other mothers who have donated their milk, time, and love. Their giving hearts have changed my life. Shelly has helped us defy all odds. She is amazing and I am blessed having her in my life. I will never take for granted all that she has done for us. Calling her a milk donor will never be honorable enough … these moms are superheroes.”
If you have milk to donate, you have options. Milk banks in the United States are always eager to accept milk donations, but certain requirements, such as the age of your baby, must be met. Read more about donating to an HMBANA milk bank.
If you’d like to share your milk with a mother and baby in need and you don’t meet the requirements for donation to a milk bank, or you would prefer a mother-to-mother arrangement, visit any of the milksharing websites that were linked above. Be sure to adequately inform yourself and examine the risks and the benefits of feeding your baby donated human milk, and determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks for your situation and your baby.