Before I was married, I visited a friend who had recently given birth to her first baby. She scared the hell out of me explained how difficult nursing was in the beginning and how she hand expressed colostrum onto a spoon and fed it to her hungry son with a dropper. A woman from her La Leche League group had even given her a bag of frozen breast milk, which she was keeping “in case of an emergency.” My level-headed, holistic friend who only ate organic vegetables was going to feed her baby milk from a STRANGER?! I told her to throw it away. The thought of her tiny baby consuming a random person’s bodily fluids nauseated me.
Fast forward four years. My son is 13 months old and breast milk is his main source of nutrition, not because of my lack of trying or because I am so self-indulgent that I insist on him only consuming my milk – my kid is just a little bit picky right now. We struggled with nursing in the beginning so we supplemented with pumped milk. Eventually he was taking enough from me that he no longer needed bottles, but I continued to pump in an effort build up a surplus for when I returned to work. At first I would pump 12-14 ounces a day in addition to nursing and now I am down to 6 ounces every few days that I cool and carefully transfer into sterile bags in my freezer.
I haven’t returned to work and he hasn’t consumed a single drop of my freezer stash – but other babies have.
The recent Washington Post article on milk sharing was forwarded to me this morning…by three of my friends. I guess word gets around when you have over 1,000 ounces of frozen breast milk. When our chest freezer (no pun intended) was overflowing with milk, I needed to make room for more. A friend of mine was more than willing to take some off of my hands; she hadn’t been successful with pumping and needed milk for when she was away from her baby. So I packed 400 ounces into a cooler and my milk made its way down the interstate. Another friend of mine was visiting from out of town with her infant and toddler. After two weeks of traveling her 2 year old was severely constipated. She was pumping for her baby and giving her toddler the extra but there just wasn’t enough milk for both of them.
Before dinner she asked if her daughter could have something to drink, “I have juice, whole milk, water and breast milk” I joked. “Let’s see if she’ll drink the breast milk,” she answered. Without a second thought, I poured my carefully collected liquid gold into a sippy cup and her sweet little constipated girl guzzled it down. And I didn’t think a thing of it when a friend from my La Leche League group recently had twins and needed a few ounces to supplement her freezer stash upon returning to work.
Four babies other than my son have consumed my breast milk. I am HIV negative, I don’t smoke, consume caffeine or drink alcohol (that later due to more to lack of opportunity than anything else) and I eat a healthy diet because my body is feeding that same milk to my own child. Granted, the recipients of my milk were all friends who knew this about me, but if a stranger needed milk and I had extra to give, I would gladly hand it over.
I can’t tell you when milk sharing became okay in my mind. I can tell you that milk banks collecting donor milk only to turn around and charge a desperate mother $6 per ounce is the only part about it that makes me ill anymore. I don’t know if I would take breast milk from a stranger, but I would definitely accept it from a friend. I agree that in today’s society there is a lot of pressure to breastfeed and for me personally, formula somehow symbolized failure. It would have saved me a lot of tears and therapy if it hadn’t. I think milk sharing is a very personal decision made by families who are just trying to do what they feel is right for their babies. It makes me happy to know that, so far, my milk has filled five little bellies, and my freezer finally closes again.