Wet nursing, or a woman nursing another woman’s baby, has always been a part of the human experience. Although this practice has fallen out of fashion for most of the world, it still occurs. In the United States, mothers who feed other women’s babies are most likely doing it through breastmilk donation. There are several milk donation organizations that coordinate the screening, collections, treatment, and distribution of the breastmilk to NICUs (neonatal intensive care units) and newborns throughout the country.
I have heard situations where a neighbor will donate breastmilk to a mother who is struggling or unable to breastfeed. I have seen a community rally around a grieving father and donate breastmilk to a motherless newborn. I thought these situations were rare. I did not understand the vast resources that exist today for breastmilk donation outside of the hospital.
I met Kathleen Little at a breastfeeding support group. She had done everything that a breastfeeding mom is counseled to do to stimulate and establish a good milk supply. Despite her efforts her milk never progressed past the colostrum phase or Lactogenesis I. Kathleen learned through consulting an IBCLC (a board certified lactation consultant) and her physician that she has tubular breasts. Women with this condition have varied success breastfeeding due to having less glandular tissue in their breasts than is normally needed to exclusively breastfeed. Disheartened and spiraling into postpartum depression Kathleen reached out to other breastfeeding mothers for help. Her son was eight days old and wasn’t getting enough to eat. This mom wanted desperately for her baby to have the benefits of breastmilk even if it wasn’t from her breast. One mother put her in contact with a birth center that had a history of giving moms donor milk. Her baby started on donated breastmilk right away and continues to be healthy and thrive. Kathleen knew the donated breastmilk wouldn’t last long so she began searching for alternatives. She discovered organizations that guided her screening of donor mothers and helped her feel comfortable choosing this feeding method for the long term.
She states that one of the biggest obstacles was accepting the fact that she was unable to feed her baby exclusively from her own breast. An ongoing barrier is finding enough donors to supply her son. She supplements with formula when necessary. Kathleen shares, “…formula…isn’t evil, but it’s not what we prefer to have him eating yet.”
Her story amazed and touched me how important it was to her to feed her baby breastmilk. As a nurse red flags go up in my mind when someone tells me they got breastmilk off the internet. The possibility of infection, disease and improper handling overtook my medical brain. My first instinct was to reject her choice as an unnecessary danger to her baby. Kathleen was patient with my questions. She has done her research and referred me to websites that addressed all my concerns and some that I hadn’t thought about.
Kathleen’s advice to mothers in a similar situation.
1. Don’t beat yourself up if you have low milk production. It’s not your fault. It will drive you crazy if you let it.
2. A baby needs a healthy happy mommy more than he/she needs to attach to a breast to eat.
3. If you reach out for donor milk, do not be afraid to ask the donor any and every question about health and diet or to ask for disease screenings (be willing to pay for this lab work). Full disclosure is the key.
4. You should never have to buy breastmilk from an individual. If you go through a milk bank that may be different. Do replace your donor’s bags!!!
4. Trust your mommy instincts. Only you know what will work best for you and your family.
Read more about Kathleen’s journey in her own words.