I feed my daughter a mix of my breast milk, formula and donated breast milk from five different women. Not only has donated breast milk benefited 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 four months later to increase that amount to nearly an ounce per feeding. Bottom line: I’ve only ever made 8-10 ounces of breastmilk a day, max. Not nearly enough for my daughter.
So at four 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 six days postpartum we met with a local lactation consultant. 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 designed for babies, it seemed like it would be awkwardly intimate to use another mother’s milk, and I was also afraid of disease transmission. 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 milk sharing Human Milk for Human Babies Facebook pages, but was too uncomfortable with the idea of taking milk from strangers. Somehow breast milk from friends or friends of friends made me a lot more comfortable. 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.
I only sent that email to six 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 four 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, as 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.
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.
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 and that point was 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. 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 eight 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 and 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!
As we grew more comfortable with donor milk (and as my daughter began to struggle with tummy problems that higher percentages of breast milk in her diet seemed to help), I decided to give Human Milk for Human Babies a try. This decision was also encouraged by an internet community I had found of other mamas with low milk supply. I posted a request on my local Human Milk for Human Babies 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. Nobody did.
A few women contacted me, one asking if I would even drive a couple of hours. I’m ashamed to admit I never responded to some of these posts. Their messages were often informal and short — and this was such a big decision for my husband and I that if I wasn’t immediately comfortable I wasn’t going to go for it. 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.
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), and 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?! I mean here I am preparing to feed my baby her body fluids. This just goes back to our decision: to trust.
I still sometimes have fears of my daughter contracting a communicable disease — or imagine the horror of a donor realizing she has a disease 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.
As I stay in touch with some of these donor moms and pick up milk from time to time, I am often so focused on my own gratitude for this incredible gift, that I am surprised to realize how honored they continue to be. They seem proud to help and to see how my daughter is growing, and we tease about how our children are milk-siblings.
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!