Milk Sharing. This really isn’t a new concept. It’s been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Thanks to the strong push of the formula industry over the last century of course, breastfeeding and milk sharing all fell out of fashion for some time, specifically in the 1950 and 1960’s. Thankfully, the countless benefits of breastfeeding have stood the test of time, and the World Health Organization’s message of breastfeeding for a MINIMUM of 6 months to 2 years and beyond continues to be heard.
I have been a nursing Mother for over 4 years now, and I understand the absolute joys and sometimes struggles that can come with such a blessing. I have a lot to say on the topic and this will no doubt be the first of many posts you will see on Mother’s Milk. I am an extremely strong supporter of breastfeeding, but even more so as you will learn through my writings, I am a very big advocate of Informed Choice. Whether it be how to feed your child, schooling, medical decisions or any other important decision we are faced in our lives, Informed Choice is critical. How can one make a fully educated decision without all of the facts? – Facts, I might add, that can be manipulated and distorted all too easily by corporate interests trying to capitalize on our babies and family’s wellbeing.
It’s no secret that “Breast is Best”…
According the the World Health Organization, “Infants should be exclusively breastfed – ex. receive only breast milk – for the first six months of life to achieve optimal growth, development and health. “Exclusive breastfeeding” is defined as giving no other food or drink – not even water – except breast milk. Breast milk is the ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants; breastfeeding is also an integral part of the reproductive process with important implications for the health of mothers.” All other major health organizations support and recognize these facts.
…but what happens if a mother and baby encounter challenges in breastfeeding? Although some hospitals can be fairly progressive in their breastfeeding efforts and support, they can also be extremely quick in offering an exhausted and desperate mother a bottle of infant formula, and thus the continued efforts to breastfeed can be spoiled.
Contrary to popular mainstream thought, if a mother cannot breastfeed, artificial infant milk (more commonly known as Infant Formula) is NOT the next best option for baby – nor is it the ‘only’ option, as some may be lead to believe.
If a milk supplement is needed for a baby, The World Health Organization (WHO) advises that infant formula be given only as a last resort. The WHO’s recommendations for infant feeding are in the following order:
1) at the breast
2) via pumped or hand expressed breast milk, using a cup, spoon, or oral infant feeding tube, ex NOT by a bottle with an artificial nipple, as this can cause breastfeeding problems;
3) with donor milk
4) as a final resort, with artificial baby milk (ABM for short) also known as infant formula. (World Health Organization (WHO), 2003).
If you cannot solely breastfeed your infant yourself, what’s next? Whether you choose to explore donor milk, supplement with formula or do a combination of all of the options, it is no doubt a very personal choice and a very difficult journey to say the least.
In Canada, there are currently only 2 certified Human Milk Banks, one in Vancouver and the other in Toronto – both have extensively long waiting lists and are reserved for the most critically ill babies. It can be extremely expensive and most do not even have this option. But shouldn’t the gift of Mother’s Milk be available for any Mother who wishes their child to receive it? I think so, and so do a lot of other Mother’s out there.
In the last few years, thanks to the power of social media, Informal Human Milk Sharing within communities has skyrocketed. Human Milk for Human Babies and Eats on Feets are two of such networks easily found on Facebook – creating a community of local Mothers, both donors and recipients, who all want to share, connect and do what they feel best for their children. Again, informed choice is the crux of these groups. The women that donate give full disclosure about their lifestyle, medications etc and some will show copies of blood tests if requested. Women that donate their breast milk are as passionate as I am about giving human milk to human babies.
Our story of milk sharing – both Receiving and Donating
I was blessed with my first son to have a very strong nursing relationship from the get go. Prior to his birth, I knew I wanted to breastfeed. It only seemed natural to me. At age 26, I was a bit intimidated though, as I was the first of all of my friends to have a baby and I truthfully had never actually watched a baby nurse. This may sound funny, but I purposefully set out to watch YouTube videos of infants nursing with their mothers to help prepare me mentally (and even technically) for what was a head… and it really did help. With lots of skin to skin and time on the breast immediately after birth, my son and I were quickly in a very good nursing routine.
Skin to skin and lots of time at the breast helped my first son and I establish a very good nursing routine
A few months came and went. I was blessed with an oversupply of milk so I pumped daily and froze my milk. Then 4 months after my first son was born, I was surprised to find out that I was expecting again! (Don’t believe those old wives tales that tell you if you are nursing you cannot get pregnant, because it certainly does happen!) I was thrilled and we continued to nurse on.
At the time, I wasn’t even aware that women could have milk supply issues when pregnant and breastfeeding. I was fortunate we didn’t have any milk issues for quite some time and it wasn’t until a friend had asked me if I experienced a change in my milk that I even started researching the subject. This is not true for all women, but for many, the hormones produced in pregnancy can counteract the hormones needed for women to lactate. Since our hormones are changing constantly when we are pregnant, nursing, or doing both, it’s understandable why this can occur and changes can happen in milk supply.
Knowing this, I was very determined to continue – nursing as often as possible, pumping between feeds and taking natural galatagogues, such as More Milk Two, that were safe to take during pregnancy to help keep my supply going.
It wasn’t really until my 3rd trimester that I really noticed a significant decrease in supply and knew I needed to do something. Thankfully I had milk in my freezer, but since my little guy was still so young and not on many solids, he still relied on his Mama Milk for the bulk of his nutrition (Remember, before age 1, food is just for fun!)
At this point, I hadn’t even heard of Milk Sharing, but I am such a strong believer of breast milk I knew deep down I needed to know I had exhausted all of my options before having to resort to infant formula. I first reached out to an extended family member who I knew was nursing. I was a bit embarrassed at the time, and honestly, wasn’t sure how she would react to me asking for her to pump some of her milk for my baby. I was afraid to call her about it and wasn’t even sure how to ask. So as impersonal as this may sound, I sent an email to her with my thoughts and request. Since it was a bit of an unusual request, I thought at least it would give her some time to digest what I was asking before feeling obliged to answer. We were SO fortunate she was glad to help. I was able to continue nursing and supplement with her milk and my freezer stash for some time, but eventually we needed more milk. I was then introduced to an article in one of the local Toronto based newspapers that spoke of a ‘new’ growing trend amongst mothers: Community informal human milk sharing powered by social media.
I immediately read as much information online as I could and joined my local milk sharing chapters. There I ended up connecting with a few local mothers who became amazingly beautiful friends and milk donors for my little guy. With their help, I was able to continue to nurse throughout the rest of my pregnancy with my reduced supply and provide my little man with donor milk as well. This is a gift I will forever be grateful for.
Since my boys are 13 months apart and my eldest son was still nursing when my youngest was born, tandem nursing seemed like the next natural progression. Tandem nursing is when two siblings of different ages both breastfeed. It can come with its share of challenges, but in my personal experience has been amazing and the best choice for all of us. (this will be another post I’m sure!)
Tandem nursing my boys who are 13 months apart was the next natural step in our journey
Once my second son was born, my milk transitioned from colostrum to milk as it normally does and again I was blessed with an oversupply. I tandem nursed and continued to pump whatever I had extra. After the overwhelming support I received through Informal Milk Sharing networks such as Human Milk for Human Babies and Eats on Feets, I wanted to give back and share a gift that I believe every baby should receive.
Since my second son was born in 2011, I have been able to donate milk to more than 8 babies and toddlers in my community. As I am now pregnant again and still nursing, I have not been able to donate lately since my milk supply is transitioning for a newborn again, but I plan on continuing to donate again as soon as my body allows. I believe it is one of the greatest gifts you can give to a child, to a mother, to a family. In a world where the sense of community can be so lost and obscured, the simple act of donating something as natural as Mothers Milk connects, renews and restores the soul.
Sharing my milk with my own children as well as other babies has been one of the most empowering and humbling gifts I have received as a mother.
Again I say, informed choice is key. Do your research. Visit the websites. Read the books. Speak to others you trust. Most importantly, follow what feels right for you and your family. You never know what gifts are just around the corner when you keep an open mind and open heart. What you need will be presented – whether you are in need of help, or willing to give. Each act of giving and receiving wholeheartedly will connect you more to yourself, your family and the world around you like you’ve never imagined.
Full term breastfeeding and milk sharing works for our family. This is just a little piece of our milk sharing story I am sharing with you today. I fully support all mothers as we are all unique and in different situations. It is my hope to share my experience and inspire others through what I have learned and felt. Empowering each other is what it is all about. It is through this sharing that we all grow and evolve together.
That’s our milk sharing story thus far. What’s yours? Have you ever donated or received donor milk… or both?