Certain things are supposed to happen a certain way. We can accept, if begrudgingly, that sometimes things don't go as they are "supposed" to, we can make allowances for the times when a curve ball is thrown and we swing hard only to strike. For many of us, when it comes to breastfeeding, that's what formula is for. When what is supposed to work doesn't.
But did you know that formula is the 4th and last option the World Health Organization recommends as a substitute for a mother breastfeeding? The WHO ranks infant nutrition in this order: 1) direct breastfeeding; 2) the mother’s pumped or expressed milk in a bottle; 3) another mother’s donated human milk, and 4) artificial breastmilk substitute.
Look a little further into breastmilk it's not difficult to see why. From lower infant mortality rates to a marked reduction in SIDS, from lower childhood obesity to disease fighting antibodies, from optimal nutrition to increase protection against allergies, and new studies showing that stem cells are present in breastmilk as well. And then there are the risks associated with formula feeding. With all this and then some, it is no wonder that donated breastmilk ranks higher in priority for infant nutrition than artificial breastmilk substitutes, AKA formula. So when things don't work how they are supposed to, for whatever reason, and pumping isn't a viable option, again for whatever reason, then before reaching for formula the World Health Organization recommends families find donated breastmilk.
The problem is how difficult it can be to get donated breastmilk as Karen shared in a guest post not too long ago. Whether it be via milk banks through such organizations as The Human Milk Banking Association of America or informal direct donation as found through places like MilkShare, there simply isn't enough donated milk available. And the price can be prohibitive even through direct donation if shipping is involved. This further complicates the problems of what was supposed to work, not working.
I am a milk donor. I have 4 milk babies and all of them came to their families through adoption and though their mommies tried, they were unable to induce lactation or relactate to a point to fully meet their babies needs. It has been an honor to assist these families and something I am proud of. All of my milk donation has been through informal, direct donation. Sometimes the need is because of adoption and sometimes it is for physical reasons where the mother is unable to breastfeed or has insufficient milk production. This past week I read several stories from families needing milk but one in particular stood out: a father looking for donated breastmilk for his newborn baby boy. This mother had planned to breastfeed when her son was born at the end of August and she did, for 6 days until she died unexpectedly in her sleep. Now, to honor his wife's wishes and to do the best he can for his son this father is looking for donated breastmilk. MckMama blogs about the situation, her emotional response to it and drives this father's plea further in her blog piece "The Post In Which I Ask For Your Breastmilk" asking for more lactating women to step up and help this family get the milk this little boy so needs. When I read this story and others, my mind jumps to the bags of frozen milk in my freezer and I wonder if I could increase my supply to meet these needs. Somehow, some way I want to personally provide every baby in need of breastmilk with enough milk to meet their needs. Even as I write this my eyes fill with tears again because of this tragic situation and as I fight the sting I realize something.
I donate because it could be my baby.
Because it could be my breasts that didn't produce enough or even any milk.
Because it could be my baby born in my heart but came from the body of another woman.
Because it could be my breast surgery done when I didn't think about breastfeeding my future babies.
Because it could be my baby born too early or with other complications and it could be my breasts don't produce enough through expressing and pumping.
Because it could be my health failing, it could be my heart surgery, my cancer, my complications.
Because it could be my family grieving my death and my husband looking for milk for my baby.
Because it could be my baby that needed the milk of another woman and I hope it would be there.
A few months ago a friend was very close to having her little boy and she sent me an e-mail asking me a favor: should she die would I please help her husband find breastmilk for their new baby? I wanted to tell her not to think like that, only positive thoughts going into birth but something held me back. The pure honesty in admitting a fear that I have pressed down in myself demanded an honest answer. Yes, I would do it. I also told her that I understood her fear. Because I do. In that moment all the statistics in the world don't matter, what matters are the ones that will become the reality for you family, for your baby. And you need to know there are provisions should you need them. Because it could be your baby.
In the case of my friend, she and her little guy are doing well and I am grateful I did not need to help her husband find donor milk for their son. This other family was not so fortunate and they do need donor milk. As do many others. There are far more babies who do not need donated breastmilk than do but for those that are in need the difficulty and expense in finding human milk can be too much. For these families to follow the recommendation of The World Health Organization and get donated breastmilk for their babies we need more donating moms. Have you ever wondered for even the briefest moment if your baby was getting enough milk from your breast? Have you ever been concerned that your health or medications you require could prohibit you from breastfeeding? Or have you ever let your mind wander to the fear of you not being able to get to your baby in the case of some kind of disaster or emergency? Then you can understand a fraction of the worry a mother or father with a baby in need of donated breastmilk. If you are one of those mothers or fathers please know that my heart, and my milk, goes out to you. To any woman currently lactating or will be some day, would you consider adding even just one pumping session a day into your schedule to help out these families? If you respond well to expressing your milk, please consider becoming a milk donor either through safe direct donation or by becoming a screened milk donor with a milk bank in your area. Anyone with milk already stashed in your freezer but more than you require, please explore the possibility of sharing that milk if it isn't more than 6 months old, passing it on to another family in need. If you are interested in helping the family whose story I shared briefly here please follow the hyperlink to MckMama's blog for more information and check out this information on shipping frozen breastmilk if you are not local to that family or have found another family in need of milk but not in your area. Because it could be your baby.
Every human baby deserves to have the normal nutrition for a human infant: human breastmilk. To every lactating woman, past, present and future that has ever shared or will ever share even a drop of her milk with another woman's baby I thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Whether you give through safe direct donation or through an established Milk Bank such as one approved by the Human Milk Banking Association of America, I thank you.
Because it could be my baby.
For families looking for milk, it is important that you be informed on the potential risks of receiving breastmilk through informal donation vs. a recognized milk bank when making your decision.