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I breastfed 3 babies besides my own: How milk sharing made me an unofficial wet nurse

At first, we weren’t sure John would latch. The playgroup mamas had stacked pillows around us, elevated my feet, and shooed out the noisy five-year-olds. I’d handed off my own son, positioned the baby, and whipped out a boob. We knew John was hungry, but he wasn’t eating. The playgroup mamas held their breath.

“Try expressing a little bit,” one suggested.

I squeezed some milk onto my nipple. John turned his head, opened his mouth, and clamped on. His steady, rhythmic suck felt different than my own son’s – the get-down-to-business latch of a one-month-old, unlike five-month-old Blaise’s suck, pop-off, stare, repeat. I cradled John for a minute or so, enough for my milk to let down, then returned him to Stephanie, his mother.

“Well, we now know it works,” she laughed. We’d known each other for years, and when John was born, Stephanie asked my husband and I to serve as John’s godparents. As I handed John over, I felt closer to them than I ever had.

A few months before Eats on Feets hit the news, before the Canadian Health Ministry, the FDA, and countless news articles catapulted milk sharing into the media spotlight, neither Stephanie nor I over-analyzed co-nursing. Her maternity leave was ending, and though she’d managed to save some pumped milk, it seemed (to her eyes, at least) dismally insufficient. My nursing John took the pressure off. If Stephanie couldn’t pump enough, my boobs assured she wouldn’t have to break out the formula.

So I co-nursed John. I nursed him so Stephanie could sleep; I nursed him so his parents could go out for dinner; I pumped to supplement Stephanie’s freezer stash (which turned out to be fine, by the way). John was my godson; we both wanted him to have breast milk. If I’d had a 9-to-5 job instead of my more flexible writing and teaching schedule, I might not have been able to help. But I could read while I pumped, and when I nursed, I fed Blaise, then John, then Blaise, then John. Sometimes in a pinch I latched them both.

There was nothing risky or revolutionary about this arrangement. Stephanie knew I didn’t smoke or drink. Like most women with five-month-olds, I had current HIV and hepatitis tests. I didn’t sleep around or shoot heroin in dark alleys (how that would work with a baby tied to me, I’m not sure), and Stephanie was aware that I took Zoloft, which is considered safe for breastfeeding mothers. Most importantly, she knew I was breastfeeding my own baby at the time. The boob law of supply and demand states that, barring any complications, the more demand, the more supply. My godson was hungry, so I fed him. And his mother and I were both hippie enough, or practical enough, that it became a perfect solution.

We both knew, however, that our attitude wasn’t universal. My sister-in-law – let’s call her Jessie – had a son born the day after John. Jessie’s milk came in late, and by the time I went up to see her, three days after baby Lincoln’s birth, things had deteriorated. Jessie wasn’t producing. Lincoln wasn’t latching. Jessie was trying to feed him, failing, pumping, and crying. Everything had snowballed until they had to feed Lincoln formula. Jessie didn’t want to, but they didn’t feel like they had a choice. My heart broke a little, along with hers, every time they pulled out that metal can.

“You know,” I said, “I don’t know how you feel about it, but if you want, I can feed Lincoln.”

She stared at me blankly.

“I mean, I’m already feeding Blaise. We could just see if he’d latch. Or I can pump if you want, so you don’t have to give him formula.”

The look Jessie shot me indicated that she was certainly not okay with that.

“I mean – I’m sorry – I just know you didn’t really want to give him formula, and – ”

“Thanks,” Jessie managed. “We. Are. Fine.”

And, in the end, they were. Lincoln had major latch problems, but Jessie soldiered through. The lactation consultant said she’d never seen anyone try so hard, for so long, and finally succeed at breastfeeding. A month and a half later, Jessie told me that with justifiable pride. Three months later, she didn’t have to supplement anymore. She’d even started a freezer supply of milk to feed Lincoln when she returned to work. Thinking she might be worried about having enough, I offered again to donate.

“I brought my pump up here,” I said. “I didn’t want my supply to drop, but I don’t want to haul the milk back down I-95. Do you want it?”

This time, she definitely did. So I stashed my neatly labeled Medela bags in my in-laws’ freezer. Lincoln used them when his grandmother babysat.

I never asked Jessie why she changed her mind, but I have a few ideas. The second time I offered, she knew she could feed Lincoln. Feeding him my milk wasn’t some kind of failure; it was practical. Jessie knew the value of those little bags: how hard she worked to fill them, how quickly they disappeared. Any little bit helped.

Later, with Stephanie’s milk supply in order and Jessie hundreds of miles away, I went back to feeding just one baby – my own. Then Eats on Feets hit the news.

Anyone who reads parenting blogs, visits CNN.com, or follows health news knows what I’m talking about. Eats on Feets uses Facebook to connect babies in need of breast milk with mamas willing to donate. Wet-nursing meets social media. The women make the connections – the organization simply facilitates them and provides suggestions about donor selection, milk storage, and the pasteurization process. The pleas women post on the discussion board are nothing short of heartbreaking:

“We are desperately seeking milk. My little guy is EBF [exclusively breastfed] and losing weight. I have done everything in my power to make breastfeeding work – but things are going quickly downhill. He is 3 months old and 8 lbs. 11 oz. (born 7 lbs. 3 oz.) : if anyone has any information or milk they could share with us to keep us away from formula, PLEASE let me know.”

I read that story three days in a row. I know what it’s like to have a tiny baby. Between reflux, milk protein intolerance, and the genetic legacy of many, many short people, Blaise is tiny. At one year, people mistake him for eight months. At eight months, people mistook him for five. At five months, someone mistook him for two and I almost decked her (I took a deep breath and instead pointed out that he was sitting unassisted). I remember well the terror of the pediatrician’s scale: Will he be big enough this week? Will this be the visit that the doctor says, enough, he needs formula?

I swore I didn’t want to pump for someone else. But if that someone really needed it: if the baby’s hungry, you feed him.

I sent Amber a message. It was Thanksgiving Day, but she replied almost immediately. When she wrote that she’d tried everything to breastfeed, she meant it. She and her son Levi had weathered a total refusal to latch, a tongue tie, and poly-cystic ovarian syndrome – a condition that severely curtails woman’s milk supply. Her milk had very little fat (a crucial component for weight gain), and Levi had been diagnosed as failure-to-thrive. She was supplementing with upwards of 12 ounces of formula a day.

I explained my situation to Amber – that I was nursing my own baby and had nursed my godson.

I also told her I’d call some friends.

A month later, Stephanie and I are both pumping for Levi, often twice a day. We meet Amber for milk drop-offs about once a week. With our donations and those of other mothers, some one-time, some ongoing, Levi no longer needs formula. He now weighs more than 12 lbs. – a gain of almost one pound a week. Amber has ditched the nipple shield, and her supply is increasing. I’ve promised that once Levi no longer needs donor milk, I’m throwing a party: for Amber and Levi, and for all the mamas whose tiny freezer bags fed a hungry baby.

Until that party happens, however, I’ll be waking up, strapping on what my husband calls “the milk machine,” and pumping, pumping, pumping. Levi’s still hungry, and though his mother and I might have been strangers when I saw her Internet post, after milk drop-offs that turned into hangout time that turned into playgroup, we’re not strangers anymore.

The FDA discourages informal milk sharing, but milk banks are expensive – upwards of four dollars an ounce – and, so far, unregulated. As long as babies need milk, women will find a way to get it to them. There will always be mothers of a Levi, a John, or a Lincoln who need a little bit of help, mothers who know that, according to the W.H.O., the best infant feeding choice – after breastmilk of their own, either directly or expressed – is donor milk (51). There will always be women, like me, who are proud and honored to direct-nurse, wet-nurse, co-nurse, or milk-share. It’s our milk, and until the FDA develops a system for providing breast milk free of charge to every human baby, we’re going to step up and donate.

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