Here is a very honest piece from my dear friend Katie about her journey with donor milk.
I am a mother of three amazing children. My youngest, my last baby, turns one in less than a week. I was able to provide breast milk to my older two children for 12 months and I am less than a week away from reaching my goal of providing breast milk to my last baby for a year as well. My babies have all been breastfed, but not in the way you might expect. You know the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”. Well for me, it takes a village to feed my children.
When I was pregnant with my oldest daughter I was worried that breast feeding would be difficult. I attended group discussions, did some research, identified a breast pump that I felt would meet my needs once returning to work, and was reassured by well intentioned individuals that I wouldn’t have an issue. Breast feeding is natural, normal, our bodies are made to do it – except when they aren’t, but that was really brushed under the rug to keep me from worrying unnecessarily. If I wanted to breast feed I was assured I would be successful. I was assured that a very small number of women physically don’t produce enough milk and with enough desire and work I would be successful in reaching my goal.
Well, best laid plans don’t always turn out to be cupcakes and rainbows.
After my oldest was born, we began our breastfeeding journey. My midwife helped me with my baby’s latch both immediately after birth and on our second day visit. She assured me that it could take several days for my milk to come in. She told me to be patient and offer the breast whenever possible. When you are establishing this relationship you can’t nurse too much. You can’t over feed a breastfed baby. We tried and tried, she nursed and nursed, but my baby and I continued to struggle. My midwife came over numerous times to help with latch and reassure we were doing things right. During our one week weight check we discovered that my daughter was losing weight rapidly. Our daughter slept a lot and when she wasn’t sleeping she was angry, crying all the time. My midwife continued to advise, I consulted a lactation consultant, but nothing seemed to help. When my daughter was ten days old we had an appointment with my midwife and we did a pre-nursing weight and a post-nursing weight. This confirmed what I feared – I was not producing enough milk to sustain my daughter. I was heartbroken, crushed, and felt lost. I wanted so badly to breastfeed my daughter. I felt like a failure. My midwife asked us how we felt about donor milk. I had never really heard much about donor milk, but my husband and I really wanted to avoid formula if we could, especially at such a young age. We discussed this during our appointment and ultimately agreed that we would be open to trying donor milk as a path forward. My midwife immediately called a nursing mother who lived close by. She brought us freshly pumped milk in a bottle. That night was the first night that I was able to satisfy my daughter’s needs. It was the first time that she wasn’t hungry since being born. Thinking back on that night still makes me weep and gives me chills. It is a very heavy realization that YOU cannot provide for your child; that YOUR body is incapable of doing what it was made to do. YOU feel BROKEN.
I was broken.
My midwife gave us the brief run down into the world of donor milk and where to look for it. Luckily, the mom who brought us our first bottle of donor milk also brought enough to get us through a couple days, but we had to ration that milk until we found more. As amazing as it was to see our daughter full and content that first night, having to ration the milk we had during the next couple days and determine how many small feedings we could squeak out was terrible. She cried and screamed – she was hungry, she was angry. She was HANGRY. Do you choose to let her be hungry now or later? I tried to nurse her to continue to encourage my milk to come in more, but she would get angry shortly after trying to nurse because my little supply was frustrating to her, especially now that she knew what a full tummy felt like. During this time, family members tried to convince us to supplement with formula. We knew it wouldn’t have been the end of the world to add in formula, but we wanted desperately to give her breast milk, and with this new pathway we felt we needed to try. This decision strained our relationships and caused my husband and I to retreat away from family because we felt attacked instead of supported.
Over the next few weeks I obsessively stalked the online donor milk resources – Eats on Feets, Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB). I jumped at any amount of milk and would drive pretty much any distance. We even found a donor on Craigslist who had a freezer full of milk she was selling because her son had passed away from heart complications. We reached out to her, established a relationship, had her tested for diseases that can be passed through milk, and made a financial commitment to buying her milk and the freezer. I know buying/selling breast milk is looked upon as shady and is discouraged, but we were desperate. I was completely stressed, which wasn’t helping me bond with my child, was stressing my marriage, was impacting my relationship with my parents, and wasn’t good for my efforts to try to boost my milk supply. Buying that freezer full of milk was the best decision we could have made. Five years later it still has a place of honor in our living room. It goes through various stages of being full of liquid gold or being not so full – my sign it is time to look for more milk. We also have maintained a bond with the mother who sold us that freezer. We donate to the foundation that she set up in honor of her son (Heart on a String, LLC) and I send her a Christmas card and get a response every year. The bond you develop with a person who has helped feed your child can be timeless and intense.
So, I’m sure you are wondering what I tried to boost my supply. The short answer is EVERYTHING. I ate every galactagogue I could; I tried cluster nursing, nursing on demand, night nursing, pumping, and every supplement possible. I made sure to drink enough water and eat enough calories. I made sure her latch was good and that she didn’t have a tongue tie or other physical issue that would make nursing the root cause of my low supply. You name it, I tried it. Nothing worked. I simply was one of those few women who didn’t produce enough milk.
As my daughter grew our nursing relationship changed, as it does for everyone I’m sure. After a few weeks she started to recognize that the bottle was giving her the food, not me. She would get fussy when I tried to nurse her. She would arch away and look for the bottle. She would latch, suck, realize that nothing was there, and pop off and cry. So I adjusted and would feed her with the bottle first and then try nursing her at the end of her meal so we could keep our relationship going. We also night nursed as much as possible, but there was always a bottle next to the bed to come to the rescue when she was really hungry and not just looking for comfort. As each month passed she got more and more frustrated with me, which resulted in shorter nursing sessions and fewer times when she fell asleep while nursing (aka nip naps). As our relationship changed and the bottle replaced my nipples, my heart broke a little more every time we had a failed nursing session. Every once and a while we would have a successful nursing session, and my heart sang, but with that joy came the realization that I didn’t know if it would be the last time we would succeed. I cried a lot. I cursed my body for being broken. Yet, all of those intense negative emotions were all also wrapped up in a bow of gratitude. I’m grateful for every day my daughter nursed and tried to nurse. For every nip nap, every smile she gave me because she was happy to be at the breast even though she knew it was just for comfort. I’m grateful for every drop of liquid gold that was given to us so she could thrive.
By the time she reached 6 months she was really not nursing at all, so I attempted to keep my very low supply going by pumping. I returned to work when my daughter was 3 months old and started pumping at least 3 times a day while I was at work. My maximum daily total of milk I could pump was 1.5 ounces with my oldest. This didn’t vary a lot with water intake, food, supplements, etc. On a good day I might be able to squeak out 2 ounces, but on a bad day I would get drops. I pumped every day at work until my daughter was 10 months old. By that time I was bringing home a couple ounces total in a week. While I was pumping, I researched to see if there was something I had missed before that would help my supply. I would search donor milk sites looking for offers for both onetime donations and regular donors. I would jump at every single offer I saw, unless it was dairy free or some other very special type of milk that another baby needed more. We were fortunate that our daughter didn’t have any food allergies and I preferred to save those milk offers for people who really needed them. If I got a response from the person with the offer we would start up a conversation about diet, supplements, medications, etc. If we had a match, we would make arrangements to travel to pick up the milk. I have picked up milk anywhere from down the street from my house to a couple hours away in Tucson, I have picked up anywhere from a few ounces to 1000 ounces at a time. It all depends on how lucky you are to make a match. You have to be in the right place at the right time. You could miss a huge amount of milk by being a few minutes late checking the Facebook sites. Every day, when pulling milk out of the freezer, we had to assess how much milk she was going through. Was she drinking more because of a growth spurt, less because she was too busy to drink a bottle? Then I would compare that to the amount of milk saved in our freezer to estimate how much time we had before we ran out. Watching your precious donor milk stash dwindle over time is a lot like watching the sand of time pass through an hour glass… when will the sand run out? Will you be able to find more?
Relying on donor milk is relying on the kindness of strangers. They are giving you a piece of themselves, their time and their love, their effort, pumped into a little bag or bottle for their baby. For a variety of reasons their baby can’t, or won’t, need that milk, so they choose to donate it to someone who can. I have picked up milk from over 150 women in the last five years. The reasons for donating vary vastly. I have meet women who just have an oversupply, women who need the freezer space, and women whose babies don’t like the taste of pumped milk. I have also met mothers whose babies have died who have chosen to pour their grief and love into providing for another baby while they can. All of these mothers are amazing, selfless women. I keep in touch with a few, but they all have a place in my heart. They have helped me feed my babies when I was unable to do it myself.
When my oldest turned one, I rejoiced because I had met my goal of breastfeeding her until the age of one. It was the longest, hardest fought goal I had ever reached. I got pregnant with my second around this same time. My midwife and doula knew my struggle with breastfeeding and dedication to donor milk. They both assured me that it could be different the second time, but we knew there was a chance my breastfeeding journey with my second baby would be similar to the first. We were smarter the second time around though, and we made sure we were prepared for the uphill journey. With the help of my doula, my milk angle, we began stockpiling milk in preparation. I also made sure to get tiny syringes that I could use to drip donor milk into my baby’s mouth while breastfeeding in hopes to encourage my supply to be stronger.
After my second daughter was born we immediately started trying to establish our breastfeeding relationship. We tried to not rely on the donor milk that we had, but it became evident very quickly that my body wasn’t cooperating any better this time than it had the first time. We started using the syringes to supplement while I nursed and I continued the hunt for milk on the donor sites. I nursed her until she became frustrated and then we would finish with a bottle. Then, just like her sister, she identified that the bottle was more satisfying than nursing on me. She stopped nursing much earlier than her sister, for a variety of reasons. I returned to work when she was just 6 weeks old, and shortly after returning to work I was moved to a new, high stress position that I wasn’t happy about. I tried to pump as frequently as I had with my oldest, but with the new role it was almost impossible to find two or three times to pump during the day. I felt like I was under a magnifying glass at work and taking just one break to pump became almost impossible. With the stress at work and the lack of regular pumping sessions I was never able to pump more than a few ounces a week. I tried to be happy with that knowing that any bit of my milk was precious. I was able to nurse her until she was six months old, which meant I was left trying to keep my low supply up with pumping, which wasn’t going terribly well. I lost my supply entirely around 9 months with my second daughter. My heart broke all over again because I wasn’t able to nurse or pump as long as I had the first time. I felt like I was failing my second daughter. I became determined to match my accomplishment of providing donor milk for 12 months with my second daughter.
With my first daughter, we were lucky to have the huge freezer full of milk and we were fortunate to get several other large donations and a couple of regular donors. With my second, we were not as lucky with regular donors, nor did we get a large bolus of milk at any point. There were several times when we were close to running low on our freezer supply. We drove across the valley for any quantity of milk, meeting moms or other family members in parking lots, gas stations, or outside of their homes. Sometimes we were invited in while milk was gathered and fresh pumping bags were exchanged for the liquid love that they were donating. Countless times these wonderful, selfless moms would hear our story, tell us their story, and assure us that when they had more milk in the future to donate they would let us know. Some did contact us again, but the majority didn’t. Life gets in the way and breastfeeding relationships change. As my daughter grew, our milk supply was always in the back of my mind – how much do we have, how much is she consuming a day, how many months do we have until she turns one? When our freezer was running low and HM4HB or Eats on Feets were only posting requests FOR milk, my anxiety level increased. Daily checking of the groups turned to hourly checks, desperation sets in because you don’t want to miss the one post that could keep your kid fed, keep you from having to admit defeat. It was all consuming. The older my daughter got, the harder it was to make a milk match. Everyone wants to donate to newborns and young babies, or babies who are sick – and rightfully so! They need the milk more than older babies, more than my baby. Luckily I am part of a wonderful network of women who always come to the rescue. We reached our twelve month goal with daughter number two. I had slain my dragon a second time!
Several months later we got pregnant again, with what we expected would be our last baby. Knowing that I was now two for two with having trouble with milk supply, I knew that we were heading down the rocky road of donor milk for a third time. It was still incredibly important for me to be able to provide breast milk for my third child, and even knowing the struggles and challenges that come with relying on donor milk, I was fully committed. I did struggle with feeling like I shouldn’t even bother trying to breastfeed. What was the point? My body is still broken. Even if it is better this time it still won’t be enough. I won’t be enough. Why should I try? Through all of those negative emotions, I determined that I would try. I would pull up my big girl pants and I would do my best for this one, just as I did with the other two. As a parent, all we can ever give our kids is our very best. For mine, my very best is as much of my breast milk as I can physically produce and the effort to give them donor milk for as long as possible. I set my third and final breastfeeding goal to get baby #3 to one year on breast milk. I bought a Supplemental Nursing System (SNS) to try to make the early nursing phase a bit easier and we began stockpiling milk in our living room freezer once again. My doula made sure that we had a good amount of colostrum and newborn milk, which is an amazing thing to get from milk donors. We were ready to jump back into the donor milk circuit.
My son was a better at nursing than my girls. He was able to get my supply up during the first few weeks where we were only supplementing 50% of what he needed. I found a new supplement that I hadn’t used with the girls that also helped boost my supply a little. I was diligent about taking my supplements, using the SNS, drinking lots of water, and it was paying off – for a few weeks. Each week that went by, as his needs for more milk increased, my supply didn’t change. My ability to supply 50% of what he needed soon dropped to 40%, then to 30%. He started to realize, like his sisters, that the bottle was easier than nursing. He started to get frustrated with me. After I went back to work, I diligently book time on the pumping room’s calendar every couple hours. I would haul my pump and milk bag into the room, hook the pump on, and sit for 30 minutes looking at photos of my son, listening to videos of him, trying not to notice that I was only getting drips and dribbles from the pump. I researched pumps, flanges, methods to make pumping work more efficiently. I determined that a new pump would be more effective because there had been improvements since I bought my pump after my first was born. My new pump worked better – much better. I was able to get two ounces per side out a day in the beginning. That is 4 ounces a day! The most I ever had pumped! That was ALMOST a full feeding for him! I tried not to compare my success with the other bottles or bags of freshly pumped milk that were stored in the Mother’s Room fridge. Their full bottles would take me nearly a week or two to even come close to filling. It was a constant reminder that even though I was doing well for me, it still wasn’t the way it was SUPPOSE to be. Then my supply started to go down. My body just couldn’t keep up. Four ounces a day dropped to three, and then dropped to two. My son started to only want to nurse for comfort and I knew that our days of breastfeeding were coming to an end. I tried with all of my being to remember every nip nap, every toothless smile with part of my nipple in his mouth, because I knew they were coming to an end and I would never nurse one of my babies again. My son was 6 months old when he stopped nursing and I remember every detail about our last nip nap. I didn’t pay that much attention to the last time my daughters latched because I didn’t know it was going to be the last time. This time I could tell the signals. I knew.
After he stopped latching my supply dropped dramatically. I went from getting 2 ounces a day to dribbles in just a month. I set a goal to pump for another two months, until Christmas break, but I stopped pumping right before Thanksgiving, when my son was 7 months old. It was just too heart breaking to devote hours of my day to pumping and only come home with dribbles that can’t even be measured. It was making me feel like a failure all over again and I wanted to remember how excited I was to pump four ounces in a day, not the dribbles and drops I was so use to getting.
It was also around this time that I started to look for more milk for my son. Our freezer was getting dangerously low and we were planning a trip to California for Christmas. Much like when I was looking for milk for daughter #2, we didn’t have a lot of regular donors and there were several times when the “need” posts far outweighed the “offer” posts. For weeks there was NO MILK. No milk anywhere! I searched and searched and each week our supply dropped. Thankfully a California donor mom who had been in our situation before was generous enough to donate her milk to us while we were in California, but it seemed like Arizona had run dry. We were able to get small donations – 30 ounces here, 20 ounces there – but that only gets you one or two days at the most with an 8 month old baby. The lower the freezer got the more convinced I was that I was going to fail my son, fail to meet this goal. That my dragon would win. I cried and cried. We had never gotten this low on milk before and I needed to find out more information about formula options. My hands shaking, heart pounding, I posted in a mom’s group on Facebook requesting information on goats milk formula. My doula, my milk angel, called me with some information. She walked me through who to contact and gave me an over view of what that road would be like. It was all I could do to hold my voice steady, to not break down while I was on the phone with her. I was failing my son. I started to panic. My husband held me tight and told me that we weren’t to that place yet, we still had milk. He has been my rock through all of this – never faltering, fully supportive of the donor milk path. Countless times he has been the one to drive across town to pick up milk or to run to the store to get storage bags to trade for milk.
Through a miracle we made it through with enough donor milk to get the next offer. From that moment on, I jumped at every offer I could, drove all over the valley, hugged as many donor moms as I could. I didn’t have to venture any further down the formula pathway, though I know any of my kids would have been fine if we had to. We are days away from my son turning one. My freezer is running low. We will soon start transitioning him over to goats milk just a we did his two sisters. When the day comes that we run out of donor milk entirely, as I pour out the last drop of donated liquid love I’m not sure what emotions I will feel. I know I feel relieved that we have made it this far down this journey. I am grateful to so many mommies and babies who have given their milk to us so that my three babies could share in the amazing food that breast milk is. I’m grateful for my husband, my parents, my sister-in-law and aunt and uncle. All of them have learned about donor milk and have supported our choice to feed our babies donor milk. And all of them have driven to pick up milk for us, sat waiting in parking lots, shared our story, hugged donor moms, and stored milk for my babies. I am grateful for my doula, my milk angel. Without her, donor milk would not be so prevalent in the valley. Without her, reaching our one year goal multiple times would have been much harder. Without her, so many babies would be hungry. I am grateful for my midwife who introduced us to donor milk and supported us through three difficult nursing situations and became our cheerleader as we reached our one year goal, not once but three times. She was so excited that she could mark down that my son was fully breastfed on her paperwork because donor milk was finally recognized as a form of breastfeeding. I’m grateful to that first mommy who brought that freshly pumped bottle of milk to my midwife’s office that late night in April.
All of my babies will be breastfed to one year, but not the way most would think. I’m proud to say that I’m a donor milk recipient. My breastfeeding journey has been hard fought. Donor milk isn’t for everyone; it isn’t for the faint of heart. You need a lot of support and dedication if you are going to venture into this world. If you choose to join me here, you will find a world of love and amazing people.