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On my daughter’s first birthday, I sat down during my lunch break to write thank you notes, mostly in the form of emails and Facebook messages, to the women who had helped me feed her that year. There were 40 of them. One was a gymnastics coach in town without her baby for a tournament. Another had a newborn in the NICU, taking just drops of the copious amount she produced every time she pumped. A number of them had built up a stash of frozen milk and then found out that their own child had a dairy allergy and would be unable to drink it. Some pumped to relieve painful oversupply and had no idea what they were going to do with so much milk.
We met online and then, usually, in their kitchens (or, in one instance, a studio kitchen the donor worked a photo shoot in that day.) I witnessed their relief as they saw my baby sleeping against my chest while I loaded their precious cargo into one of my freezer bags.
Any woman who has pumped will understand how much these women wanted to save their milk from the fate of the drain. And it makes sense that they were all eager meet my daughter, who would be ingesting their donations. I always offered to bring them replacement milk storage bags, and, to reassure them that I wasn’t going to try to sell the milk online myself, or that I wasn’t some sort of lazy person unwilling to put in all the effort that nursing required (although the hours I spent with my daughter strapped to my chest, lugging coolers of rock-solid ice, on public transportation, required a lot more time and energy than either nursing or formula feeding), I told them all my story. I had discovered, following the birth of my son five years earlier, that I have insufficient glandular tissue (IGT): not enough mammary glands to produce the milk needed to keep a baby alive.
Now, any lactation consultant will tell you that IGT is very rare. And she is correct. The great majority of women make plenty of milk, even after temporary shortages they may deal with after birth for various reasons.
I’ve read differing estimates of how many of us there are, ranging from 2-5%. Although among women who have PCOS and related disorders (as I do), many of whom have already had a science fiction hell made of the simple act of conception, the incidence climbs to about a third.
There is an easy fix for lack of breast milk, of course: formula. But for me, and many other low-supply moms who have read about the benefits of breastfeeding and planned to do so, turning to canned infant formula feels like doing harm to our babies. We search long and hard for other solutions.
There are teas and herbal supplements touted to increase milk, as well as pumping regimens, certain foods and drinks (oatmeal, malt beverages, special recipe cookies), and a couple of stomach medications that have the side effect of boosting milk supply. Through a combination of all of these, I was able to produce about half of my son’s milk on my own. It was expensive and exhausting, and my partner began to wonder if I had lost my mind. But to me, it was worth it—this way, I was only half a failure. One woman did offer up her stash of frozen milk when I was struggling to feed my son, and I turned her down—grateful, but unable to overcome the “ick” factor of having him drink something that had come from another woman’s body.
By the time my daughter arrived last January, I had read about so-called “milk sharing” groups like Human Milk for Human Babies and Eats on Feets, which might be able to help me locate the quantities of milk I would need, albeit from total strangers.
At the time of my daughter’s healthy, term arrival, I still hadn’t decided between donor milk and formula. The truth was that I didn’t want to use either one.
Just like her brother, my daughter immediately latched to my breast with an iron grip, quickly swallowed what was there, and then continued sucking—and sucking, and sucking—in her increasingly desperate efforts to cue my milk come in.
On her second night, after a lot of furious sucking and screaming, and more than 12 hours since she had made a wet diaper, I pushed the button for the nurse’s station and asked for some formula and a medicine syringe. She gulped the drops of opaque, brownish not-mother’s milk, and then she calmed and she slept. I was relieved.
I was also incredibly disappointed, forced to confront the fact that it was not going to magically be different this time. I remember lying in my sweat-dampened hospital bed, still buzzed from birth and woozy with blood loss, turning the little plastic jar of formula in my hands. You could see exactly how many ounces there were, and calculate down to the milliliter how much she drank.
You could also look at the nutritional information chart and know exactly what she was taking in. As I examined it, though, I made my decision. Formula wasn’t dangerous, but it wasn’t ideal, and, frankly, I found it kind of gross—the taste, the smell, the appearance.
So once we were home, I wrote a message to my local parent listserv asking if anyone had excess breast milk they’d like to give away. I suppose I felt the milk would be less anonymous if it came from our own zip code.
Our first donor offered to climb the four flights up to our apartment, while carrying her own child, to deliver several bags of frozen milk. She was kind and pretty and had spent the past year exclusively pumping to feed her daughter—an enormous effort. And now she was sharing the wealth.
I would’ve hugged her, but her baby was on her chest, so I just thanked her, awkwardly and repeatedly, until we were both cringing. Then I put a bag of milk in the fridge to thaw.
When I made that first bottle, I smelled it carefully. I held it to the light and examined it. The woman’s daughter was a year old, and her milk was whiter and more watery than my own. Not exactly liquid gold, perhaps, but immediately more palatable to me than formula. My daughter, still hungry after nursing, happily drank it. We really didn’t look back. The first few donors were neighbors and acquaintances. Some incredible friends even shipped us milk from out of state. Eventually, though, I was mostly relying on the less intimate Facebook groups.
Any uneasiness I felt dissipated when the donor answered the door and I could see that she was as nervous to meet me as I was to meet her. We both had something at stake in this transaction.
I never paid for milk, nor did I order any online to be shipped through the mail, which was the case with the milk some recent studies have shown to be contaminated with dangerous bacteria or diluted with cow’s milk. I didn’t worry about HIV, for which my donors all seemed to be at very low risk, and which I was certain wouldn’t survive a week in someone’s freezer.
I was a little concerned about the prospect of bacterial contamination from all the surfaces—pump parts, bottles—that milk came into contact with, but ultimately decided that for my healthy, term infant, pasteurization was probably unnecessary and would kill off a lot of the good bacteria that I wanted her to have. It honestly never occurred to me that a woman would thaw out her milk, top it off with cow’s milk or formula, and then re-freeze it, though the recent study proves that some women selling their milk online must have done exactly that.
From the neatly written dates and precise quantities noted on the plastic storage bags with Sharpie markers, I was confident that these women had pumped and stored this milk with the intention of feeding it to their own children.
We received milk from a couple of repeat donors who had persistent oversupply, but the vast majority of the donations were one-time events. The women, for the most part, had no intention of becoming milk donors. Some were working moms who had amassed a store of pumped milk that their children were never going to use. Most had partners asking about when they could get their freezer space back for ice cream or vodka.
A couple were regular milk bank donors who were traveling and didn’t want to transport milk, or had milk that was older than the nonprofit milk banks would accept.
If they had wanted to sell their milk online, or to one of the few milk banks that pays donors, they probably could have made a one-time profit of up to a few hundred dollars. But they chose us instead. They were united in their reluctance to throw away milk they had put so much effort into collecting and storing, and their pleasure in meeting my baby. What I, with my pitiful half-supply, shared with them, their freezers piled to brimming, was our shared obsession with breast milk, and, perhaps, our overconfidence in its potential.
During the hours I spent in transit during what I called my “milk runs,” I had a lot of opportunities to think about what on earth was motivating me to go to such lengths, and about what prompted these women to pump and store so much milk.
One donor told me she wanted to have at least 150 ounces on hand at all times in case she was rendered unable to nurse by an unforeseen medical emergency. A couple of new mothers collected hundreds of ounces, believing that the extra effort early on would guarantee them an abundant and long-lasting supply. One amassed her copious stash by misreading the instructions for the breast pump, mistaking “turn the dial as high as is comfortable” for “turn the dial as high as you can bear.” One afternoon, I went to the website of a particular breast pump company to purchase the preferred milk storage bags of one donor, and stopped when I saw their tag line: “the promise of health.” This, I realized, was our fundamental belief. The reason they kept pumping and I kept chasing down donations: a faith that it would keep our children healthy.
There have been studies showing a link between breastfeeding and reduced incidence of a long list of conditions, each more frightening than the last (it was a track that played on repeat in my mind every time I sat to feed my son a bottle: allergies, asthma, obesity, diabetes, leukemia, lymphoma, SIDS). Yet, I reluctantly saw, there was a huge breach between “statistically significant decrease in occurrence” and divine protection.
My desire for donor milk was fed by well-meaning breastfeeding advocacy posters and brochures stating facts, but, in essence, I was enacting the same sort of ritual as lighting a candle, burning sage, saying a prayer.
Mothers of seriously ill children breastfeed, too, of course. Likely at about the same rate as the rest of us. Breast milk, no matter how hard sought, could not guarantee my daughter protection from disease and suffering.
We made it to five-and-a-half months before having to supplement with formula. We were out of town when our donor milk ran out, and when my daughter developed a low-grade fever 48 hours after the first bottle, I kept having to remind myself that microorganisms, not formula, cause illness.
After we returned home, I went back to the Internet, hunting down more donations, although with a bit less ferocity than before. Once she reached six months, she was eating other foods, as doctors recommend—including yogurt, which, like infant formula, is made from cow’s milk.
In the donor milk world, demand far outstrips supply. For every donation I got, several of my responses to Facebook posts went unanswered. Most women seemed to honor the first request they received, although there wouldn’t have been any way to enforce this as a rule.
If I ever had milk to donate, I thought, I would probably give it to a newborn in need over a healthy 9-month-old who is getting some milk from mom. But this didn’t stop me from taking donations well into my daughter’s tenth month. Sometime during month eleven, the donations ran out and I quit looking for more, and after her first birthday, we introduced cow’s milk. Organic, of course.
Do I think women should be paid for their milk donations? No. Not because milk donors’ motivations should necessarily be altruistic, but to provide a disincentive for being anything less than entirely honest about what’s inside the freezer bags.
I do think we should all be paid for a full year of maternity leave, to feed our children as we please, and to donate milk to others if we so desire. While many of the benefits of breast milk, including the ones that fueled my fears, are subject to debate, one that does seem certain concerns premature infants, who are most vulnerable to infection and whose mothers are most likely to suffer from low milk supply.
The intestinal infection necrotizing entercolitis, potentially fatal to these tiny babies, can be effectively prevented with a breast milk diet. It would be nice if donations to milk banks that pasteurize and prepare human milk for premature infants were made easier and more convenient—if, for example, milk could be donated directly to a hospital near the woman’s home. Such a system probably would have cost me some of my donations, but, ultimately, would get more milk to the babies who most need it.
On my daughter’s birthday and in the days following, my milk donors wrote me back. They thanked me for getting in touch with them, wished my daughter a happy birthday, and said they were glad to have been able to help us. All forty of them.
If my daughter never develops any health problems, I am happy to share the credit—illusory or not—with each and every one our milk donors. And if my daughter does become ill, I’m sure that my righteous, fist-to-the-sky indignation —“But I fed her breast milk!”—will be short-lived, as I’ll need to quickly return to the work of caring for her as best I can.