Disclaimer: This is one mom’s personal story. Always consult with your own doctor before making any feeding changes with your baby.
“It’s time to really start thinking about supplementing,” the pediatrician told me gently.
My second daughter was five months old. Unlike her sister — who stubbornly refused to gain weight and was supplemented with formula from her first week — my second had done well exclusively breastfeeding. Well, almost. Every time I thought I could make my goal of exclusive breastfeeding, my daughter would fall off her growth curve. Usually, she popped back up, but this time she didn’t.
With my first, I had been through a myriad of emotions about supplementing. I was frustrated, upset and angry. This time, I was just resigned. After trying for months to avoid supplementing my oldest, I had made peace with combo feeding — using formula and nursing — and I breastfed her for almost 18 months. This time, I knew that supplementing wouldn’t mean the end of breastfeeding, and that was a huge relief for me.
So, on the way home from the pediatrician, I picked up formula. But unlike my first, who had hungrily guzzled the formula, my second daughter refused. After five months of breastmilk, she wasn’t interested in the new taste. For a few days I tried mixing formula with breastmilk to get her used to the taste, but she refused to drink it. I was exasperated — I was finally OK with supplementing, and now my baby refused.
A New Approach
One night, with my baby clearly still hungry but refusing formula, I opened the freezer and saw a bag of my sister’s milk, which I had from babysitting my nephew. “Do you mind if I give this to E?” I text her. It was no problem, she replied, and even less of a problem? My baby, who happily gobbled it down.
That planted a seed: rather than fight my baby to get her to take formula, what if I gave her donated breastmilk? At first I asked my sister if she’d be interested in adding a pumping session or two each week and donating the milk to my daughter, but she was wrapping up her breastfeeding journey, and she wasn’t able to.
I had heard about informal milk sharing among moms, and even knew a few people from my breastfeeding group who had done it, but I had never paid it much attention. Now, desperate, I emailed the administrator of a local breastfeeding group and asked if she knew any moms who were able to donate.
A few days later she connected me with the woman who would feed my daughter; I’ll call her Kate. While my boobs were underachievers, Kate’s were superstars. She could feed her daughter and still pump eight ounces after a feeding. She’d been taking steps to reduce her supply, but to no avail. So, she was looking to donate.
“While my boobs were underachievers, Kate’s were superstars.”
The children most in need of donor milk are premie and micro-premies, for whom breastmilk offers important protections from infection. While for most babies, fed is best, breastmilk can truly be lifesaving for these babies. Hospital-grade donor milk programs have a rigorous medical screening process, and the milk is pasteurized. Kate tried donating to one of those programs but was denied because of a minor medical history that I wasn’t worried about.
So, Kate began pumping for my daughter. We both live in a rural area, but I live in town and she lives outside. Each week when she came in to pick up groceries, she would drop a plastic bag brimming with frozen milk. My freezer—which had never been home to the little milk storage bags—was suddenly full. My daughter was fed, happy and healthy.
Moms Supporting Moms
I was a little apprehensive about talking to my husband about donor milk—I thought he might be grossed out. I was surprised when he wasn’t phased at all. His only question was how much we needed to pay Kate. The answer was nothing: while I supplied her bags and bought her dinner once, she really was gifting us the milk. My husband, who had seen what a time and emotional commitment breastfeeding and pumping were, couldn’t understand why she was doing it for free, but I knew this was about moms supporting moms.
Kate and I began chatting each week, stealing a few minutes between crying little ones to bemoan the difficulties of raising babies. We never developed a traditional friendship, but we were very bound to each other during that postpartum period, when we were each struggling with our own challenges.
When my daughter was 11 months old I was suddenly done with breastfeeding. It was like a switch flipped — I simply didn’t want to do it any more. I explained to Kate, who supported my decision. She offered to continue donating milk to us, but I knew that my daughter no longer needed it, and there were other babies who needed it more.
Right around that time, a friend of mine who is a lactation consultant posted about her work with a mom of premie twins. The mom wasn’t producing enough and was looking for donor milk. I connected my friend with Kate, and she started donating to the twins.
Shortly after I stopped nursing, we moved about an hour away, so I haven’t seen Kate since. Occasionally we exchange text to check in, and promise to get together half way, but it has yet to happen. Still, I think of Kate a lot. The fact that she took her time and energy to help feed my child is one of the most selfless gifts I’ve ever been given. She’s an example of the type of mom and woman I want to be — one who dives in whole-heartedly to help others.
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