Hello mamas! It's been a while...again. I do apologize, but I've been very busy goo goo-ing over my brand new nephew that was brought into the world by my dear sister on April 14- so I know you'll excuse my absence :-)
All throughout pregnancy, a woman can't turn her head without hearing about the benefits of breastfeeding her baby. Everywhere you go there are signs up: in the doctor's office, the hospital, the midwife's waiting room, baby shows, pamphlets, registration packages, bottle packaging and even in the advertisements for infant formula. We know that breast milk is the best thing for our babies, of course we know it, it's been indoctrinated from conception. Thanks to the tireless work of doctors, lactation consultants, midwives, doulas and North American marketing, the majority of women breast feed their babies for an average of six months. It's no wonder then that when a woman experiences great difficulty with breastfeeding- whether it's because of low supply, damaged nipples, poor latch, no latch or downright unbearable, excruciating pain- she completely falls to pieces.
I personally knew that I would breast feed long before my dear baby was even a twinkle in my eye, and- as you all know mamas- I had a hell of a time establishing my breastfeeding routine. It took me twelve weeks to even be able to get through a breastfeeding session and four more to coax dear baby back to the laborious task of drinking from the breast after he'd been spoiled with continuous bottle flow for four months. Lucky for me, I was able to pump unbelievable amounts (we're talking up to 14oz) and so my son received my breast milk the entire time.
Now with all this touting of the benefits of breast milk, and with all of these beautiful nursing mothers around, why is it that people still can't help but cringe when they hear the expression "milk sharing"?
I admit, when I first heard on the radio that women in the US are selling their excess breast milk online for $5 an ounce, my reaction was "ewwwwwwww, GROSS!". Of course, at that time I was six months pregnant and swore I'd never bare a breast in public. I always thought back to that episode of Sex and The City when Miranda couldn't get her son to latch. She was wearing a robe and a nursing bra and had both boobs hanging out as she tried, frustrated, to get her son to latch onto one of them. I'll never forget the look on Carrie's face as she sat in front of her, partly embarrassed for her friend, partly looking around for an exit. During pregnancy, I related a lot more to Carrie in that situation, but as soon as my son was born, I was putting Miranda to shame, not even bothering with the robe and bra and just walked around my whole house with no top on for about two months.
At one point, I mentioned what I had heard about selling your milk online to my Midwife and what I thought of it. She chuckled a bit, but then told me that it's illegal to sell milk in Canada, and then very earnestly told me that, here, women have "milk shares", where they are linked up to one another online and one woman can give her breast milk to another if she needs some help. I was still put off by this, and my midwife explained to me the order of what's best for baby:
1. Mother's milk
2. Mother's milk, expressed and bottle fed, cup fed, finger fed or some other variation.
3. Another mother's milk
She kindly reminded me of the long-used practice of wet-nurses and how, in many cultures today, if a new mother becomes ill, has too little milk or- worst of all- her milk never comes in at all, the other nursing mothers in the community all take on the responsibility of nourishing the baby. We've all heard the expression "it takes a village", and in these cases, it's literal.
It was after this conversation that I realized my ignorance and childishness. A mother is a mother is a mother. Of course, one's own mother is best, but what I began to realize was that if I held a baby in my arms who was in need and I was in a position to help them, then I would. I felt that I could relate to those village mothers who take on the task of helping to nurse infants who were not thriving. Thirteen days after my son was born, my very dear friend S gave birth in her home to her own beautiful baby boy. When I went to visit them for the first time, I looked down at him and I thought to myself that if anything ever happened, I would help this child. I would nurse this child. I would keep this child safe. My own child is and always will be the most important, but this child, I thought, is special too. This is the basic empathy that comes with being a mother and a woman, the desire to nurture.
A couple of weeks ago, a mama who is very close to me was struggling with breastfeeding. She had been home with her dear baby for several days and her milk had not come in. There was some milk, and it was the watery white consistency of early milk, but it was scarce. She was nursing her dear baby tirelessly, around the clock, trying to get him up to his birth weight. When the midwife first mentioned that he was not gaining according to percentage and may need a supplement, his mama was worried. She wanted her baby to be exclusively breastfed, but of course, a full-bellied, thriving baby was the most important thing. She was given 24hrs to get his weight up before a supplement would be introduced. I stayed with her for the day as she nursed every hour and a half, all through the day and into the night. The next morning, everyone was certain he would have put on at least three ounces and when they scale revealed that, not only had he not gained, but he had lost another three ounces, his dear mama was devastated. I thought back to the horrible, heartbreaking time that I had with nursing in the beginning. I was the first of my group of mommy friends to deliver and, at times, felt quite alone during the ordeal. Every time I gave my dear baby a bottle of breast milk instead of nursing him, I felt ashamed, defeated and detached from him. My heart went out to this new mama who was torturing herself with the thought of having starved her baby. She hadn't wanted to give formula because she wanted to give her milk a chance to come in fully, which was supported by the midwife, and now she was being told that he was "too light".
I went home that evening feeling very strongly that I should help this mother. I knew that I had milk stored in the freezer. I knew that I had domperidone stashed in the cupboard to boost my milk supply. At seven months post-pardem, my milk is fully-established and mature, with a higher fat content than any formula you could buy in a store. I knew that my milk would help this dear baby gain weight quickly and that it would ease his mother's guilt about giving anything other than breast milk to her newborn son. I wanted to help her, but I wasn't totally sure how to offer my help. I didn't want to seem that I was bragging about having all this extra milk when she was struggling to create supply and I didn't want to assume that she would agree. A new mother is a very sensitive creature and a new mother who is having difficulty nourishing her baby on her own is all the more fragile. I decided to make the offer and she happily agreed. Her dear baby is happy to accept this new milk and his dear mother is supplementing with a lactation aid- probably the most natural way to supplement an infant (a thin tube is placed alongside the breast during nursing, one end is in a bottle of breast milk and the other end delivers extra nourishment to baby as he suckles away). Dear mama requires between 10 and 15oz of extra breast milk per day, which I am unfortunately not able to supply on my own, and so our dear mutual friend S (whom I mentioned earlier in the post) is also contributing milk to the cause. This beautiful, lucky dear baby is being nourished by three mothers, all of whom love him unconditionally.
After ten days of breast milk supplementation, I am happy to report that dear baby is pretty much at his birth weight and growing every day. On top of that, his dear mother is noticing and increase in her own supply and therefore a decrease in the use of supplement every single day. Her Midwife and O.B are beyond thrilled for her as well. They both agree that she has the very best of a bad situation in that she has people close to her who are also nursing and are willing to donate milk, and more importantly, that she has been willing to accept the donations. Both have remarked how exceptional and wonderful it is for women to band together to care for their infants and how great it would be if more women were able to participate in milk sharing and the use of lactation aid when supplementing their newborns.
When I think back to my pre-natal self, I can't help but laugh at my pettiness, my lack of understanding. I see now that there is no child I could hold in my arms that I would not help if I could. Nursing mothers work hard to prevent the stigma of breastfeeding in public. There are many nursing groups and mother's groups (La Leche, for example), that advocate nursing any time, any place. If only there were more groups advocating for milk sharing. As I said at the beginning of this post, we all KNOW that breast milk is what's best for our babies. Knowing this, we should all be more willing to participate in the village community of nursing mothers. It is a mother's instinct to care for, nurture and nourish babies, so let's extend that nurturing instinct to the mothers who wish to keep their babies exclusively breastfed but need a little assistance while their milk strengthens. People often see breast milk as a bodily fluid and therefore something personal, like saliva, that shouldn't be shared. I would say, as politely as possible, that those people are fools.
And I would know, I used to be one of them.