By Natacha Pacoud – Trambly, France
Giving my milk may have been, at first, a spontaneous way to honor her short existence. After all, this milk was somehow a part of her being. But beyond any expectation, it would come to mean much more. It gave strength and meaning to the beats of my heart. Somehow, it also pepped up the sad puppets my partner and I both had become. It put me back on the tracks of life.
Donating breastmilk is a personal choice. It was the right one for me. Not for all mothers, I know, but for me it was important. My desire to give opened up a new path of opportunity fourteen days after my milk supply began. I gave milk for six months, and in large quantities.
So, this is our story.
It was a battle to get there, and to find support. But all my mental, emotional and research efforts proved worthwhile. And it began by finding out that I was eligible to donate my milk to a local nonprofit milk bank.
The process of donating milk to the milk bank
In my case, a health care provider at the hospital where I delivered first mentioned the idea of donating my breastmilk. But in the end, it was me who dialed the number of a milk bank nearby, two days after being discharged from the hospital. I just needed to know: could I potentially be eligible?
A very caring doctor at the milk bank* returned my call, and really took time with me. She reassured me that such special donations were welcomed, and that I very well might be eligible to donate. A phone screening was necessary, consisting of both medical history and psychological questions related to this special situation. This would enable her to make sure donating breastmilk would not only help little ones who receive donor milk, but me too. I can still feel the doctor’s energy and kindness through the phone line, like an uplifting and soft warm breeze. It was clear that she knew how much this meant to me.
Next, I was asked to fill out an application, and to do bloodwork in order to ensure the safety of my milk. Once my application was reviewed and my bloodwork results received, the doctor at the milk bank called to share good news. I was eligible! She then asked how long I intended to collect and donate my breastmilk.
A few days later, the milk bank collector at my local milk bank called to introduce herself. She explained how to safely collect and store my milk for future donation. She told me I would soon receive bottles and stickers by express mail to use when collecting my milk. I was excited to begin!
“Yes, I am a mum, even after such a loss. Yes, I know it makes you feel uneasy, but you do have to hear this: I have milk, and I give it away. Yes, I am on maternity leave. Yes, I was pregnant. And no, no, no, I will not just forget my baby, even if that might make it more convenient for you if I did forget quickly and move forward. Giving milk is part of the grieving process for me. It might be disturbing to you, and make the fact that something has happened visible. Yet it is reality, and everyone has to live with this happening.”
– Natacha, speaking about what she she wished she had the courage to tell outsiders, regarding her decision to donate milk after loss.
An LLL Leader’s role
My La Leche League (LLL) Leader became my guide on this unknown path of lactation. She had breastfed before, was trained for support, and above all, had the heartfelt desire to provide support.
That Sunday evening when I called her about my intentions to donate milk to the milk bank, she was the one who dared to tell me, without any doubt in her clear and calm voice, “No Ma’am, I do not see any trouble supporting you in your project.” This woman gave me courage during a time when it was hard for me to just set foot outside of my apartment. She was there with a positive word when I contacted her. A rare gem and a necessary technical support to me.
I had never seen milk come out of a breast, so I looked at my nipples and wondered how these nipples could possibly spring forth milk. And how do you properly position the breast pump on your body? It’s orange milk! I thought it was bad so I should maybe throw it away, when in fact is was valuable colostrum. And my nipple seemed to be damaged after a few tries; what did I do wrong? I had so many questions. The role of my LLL Leader was crucial, day after day. The brutality of events softened a little. Thanks to her, it felt like a link to life, a bridge of hope, now existed.
I knew little ones would benefit from my donated milk. And donating milk also kept me on the edge of life. I decided to take advantage of early morning hours to pump each day. My La Leche League Leader had taught me that milk output levels are often highest then. In addition, I pumped many times a day. However, I know other bereaved moms who are milk bank donors may choose to express milk just a few times a day or for just a short period of time. Every path is unique.
I had to eat, and I knew it was important to drink to thirst also for my lactation. This meant the hardest thing—facing the world when grocery shopping, and out and about. Inevitably, I had to face people’s sometimes painful and awkward questions about my loss.
I knew that some mothers breastfeed their adopted babies. It convinced me that I could manage it too, even if I needed to pump to help my supply. I read books on breastfeeding to sustain my milk production without a baby in my arms.
My husband did agree with me about giving my milk to the milk bank. Slowly, he too grew twigs of life on what had previously been like a desolate land. We talked about it, and it preserved a dialogue among our painful silences.
Persevering through the process of expressing and donating my milk helped me keep my mind more focused, instead of wandering, during that difficult time.
Looking ahead to the future
Will I be able to breastfeed a baby exclusively? I wondered, and the answer was not far off. The day I had planned to reduce my lactation, the peak of expressed milk reached 1040ml (a little over 35oz.). I was very proud of myself; my husband was also. Two months later, my milk had dried up. I gently turned the page of this phase of motherhood.
A couple years later, a new chapter began. A precious baby girl, Audrey, was born, and I was determined to breastfeed her exclusively. Some breastfeeding challenges came up. Yet, I persisted. In fact, after Audrey was born, I ended up producing enough to fill a big cooler box that the milk bank provided me with frozen breastmilk. The same sweet lady from the milk bank who had collected milk from me three years ago was eager to greet me and collect my frozen breastmilk once again. Audrey of course was in the middle of the action too, and a great helper! As the milk bank collector was leaving, she smiled and said, “La boucle est bouclée maintenant” (The circle is completed now). Then, she gave me a big hug, and Audrey and I waved, au revoir.
Why donate milk?
Donating breast milk to a milk bank was a unique experience for me. It is a significant path to healing for many mothers like me, even if it might bring up feelings difficult to sort out for someone hearing about it. It was part of my way to live my maternity, to dare talk about me donating.
It is a wonderful thing to know that providing breastmilk to a milk bank, to benefit other babies, is even a possibility for many mothers. During a time when a sense of helplessness feels so staggering, donating milk feels powerfully uplifting. I found it to be a lovely way to honor Juliette and to show Audrey the importance of helping others.
Natacha is now a happy mum of a 2-year-old toddler enjoying mother’s milk, and has future goals of becoming a life coach. She says, “My La Leche League adventure continues as I discover together with my little girl a wonderful thing, ‘guiding with love.’ My husband and I are passionate hikers and nature lovers, and we are eager to pick up travelling again soon, to the wilderness of Alaska and the Appalachian, as well as the Alps, as Audrey grows older.”
Nonprofit human milk banks across the globe follow slightly different guidelines, but the overall steps to becoming an approved donor are generally similar. For example, at some milk banks a doctor handles screening of potential donors, while at other milk banks an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, midwife, nurse or someone else with special education and training in helping breastfeeding families, screens potential donors. Also, milk banks vary on their post-phone screening protocols regarding acceptance of either only breastmilk stored after a donor is approved, versus both past and future expressed breastmilk being acceptable.
Even when a donor is homebound, it may still be possible in some cases to pursue steps of bloodwork (required by most nonprofit human milk banks in the world) and providing breastmilk to the milk bank, without leaving home. Some milk banks, for example, offer donors insulated shipping boxes to supply their milk via overnight mail, while others have relationships with mobile phlebotomists in their area who can come to a prospective donor’s home for any bloodwork needed.
To find out if a nonprofit milk bank is located near you, check out the Human Milk Bank Global Map here.
Disclaimer: The Editor’s Note was written by Karen Williamson, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant employed in the nonprofit human milk banking field.