I had an abundance of breast milk that I couldn't use. And I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
By the time my son and I got the hang of breastfeeding, it was time for me to return to work. I was terrified that this separation would spell the end of my supply, or of the so-called "breastfeeding relationship" altogether. If I stopped feeding him my breast milk, I wanted it to be on my terms. So I pumped and pumped and pumped.
The morning I went back to the office for the first time, three months after my son's birth, we had 200 ounces stored—enough for a few weeks-worth of feedings I'd miss, I figured. I would nurse him in the morning, then pump. I haunted the mother's room at the office, pumping more and more and more. I felt guilty for being away from him, guilty for not feeding him myself, and guilty if I didn't produce my goal amount, and so I pumped more than he would ever drink, and then some.
When I started breastfeeding, I never would have pictured my abundance. My milk had been slow to come in, and after my son lost 10 percent of his birth weight and his bilirubin levels inched ever higher, we were presented with decisions that didn't feel like choices at all. We were sent home with bags of formula; and magical substance though it is, I wanted to breastfeed. I worried that if I started to give my child anything other than colostrum, or human milk, so soon, we'd miss our chance. I was left to research alternative options, like receiving donor milk or lactation support, on my own.
But before I knew it, my breastfeeding struggles changed—suddenly had an abundance of breast milk that I couldn't use.
Until we were confronted by this privileged quandary—having more human milk than we could use—it hadn't occurred to me to donate my breast milk. I'd never heard of such a thing and certainly didn't know anyone who'd done it. This should not be surprising: A tiny fraction of people who give birth donate their milk, driven by lack of awareness, supply and other factors.
In all, my son and I were able to donate more than 1,000 ounces of human milk. To do so, I contacted a local nonprofit milk bank and completed paperwork about my health history and habits. I released medical records for myself and my son, and did a blood test. I was trained on how to properly store my milk, and how to drop it off at a nearby hospital depot. The milk bank then takes the milk and sterilizes it to ensure it's safe for those who need it.
Our milk went to NICUs to sustain the most vulnerable and fragile among us, babies whose parents were not producing enough milk. It went to hospitals and dispensaries to give parents a choice in how they fed their children, something too few families actually have.
In some ways, the impact of exclusive human milk feeding has been overstated (high IQs!). But its importance cannot be overstated when it comes to premature and very ill babies in the NICU, for whom exclusive human milk feeding significantly reduces the incidence of necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a leading cause for prematurity-related death. Nor can we underestimate the impact of choice in how families feed their children, something the availability of donor milk helps address.
In recent years, breastfeeding has become a topic of hot debate. The challenges and discrepancies are illustrative both of the deep racial and socioeconomic inequities sown into our society and of the noxious pressure placed on new moms.
I am privileged, and one way my privilege manifested was in the agency I had in choosing how I fed my child. I was informed about human milk, felt empowered to decline the formula offered to us, and had access to a lactation consultant when breastfeeding was difficult. Too many parents do not have these options. Formula is thrust upon them early and often. Their pain, common in the early days of breastfeeding, goes unheeded; they are told, explicitly or less so, to give up. Lactation consulting is dominated by white providers and can cost as much as $200 out of pocket. There is too little awareness of free resources, such as those readily offered at local WIC offices. And awareness of donor milk remains low.
More needs to be done to address the root causes of this lack of choice. Directors of nonprofit milk banks often like to say that if we do the work of really empowering all birthing people, milk banks mostly won't need to exist. But until then, donating milk, where possible, is a powerful privilege.
- To the donor milk moms of the world—you are my hero - Motherly ›
- This pumping mom's letter—and donations—to NICU babies is awe ... ›