How can this be? Only 12 ounces?

These were the thoughts whirling through my head two years ago as I examined the nearly empty bottles sitting on my counter top. I was in disbelief. How is it possible that I did not pump enough breast milk for my son to drink the next day? As if going back to work for the first day was not overwhelming enough. I remember the frustration as I sat down on the floor and cried.

Over the next few weeks I quickly depleted my freezer stash of breast milk and started supplementing my son with infant formula. I felt like a total failure. I was able to boost my milk supply a bit after visiting with a lactation consultant, but I had to accept the reality of my situation. The days got easier and I became very thankful that I had any milk at all to share with my little one.

It was several months after I had stopped pumping that I heard about breast milk sharing in an online natural and attachment parenting forum. Scrolling through the forum's feed one day my eyes became locked on a post from a mother wanting to know if any donor milk was available that she could pick up that day. What?! Was this a thing? As the responses poured in I knew that it was and I felt a sense of comfort and happiness. I was not alone. These mothers were not alone either. They had a choice and a special opportunity to provide this valuable source of nutrition for their children no matter what their situation. What a blessing for mothers unable to breastfeed for one reason or another and what a beautiful opportunity for mothers with extra "liquid gold" on hand to share with others.

I wish I had known sooner.

I found a few mothers willing to share their stories and advice with me so that I could pass along this information to other mothers who may benefit. Many of these mothers shed tears reflecting on these memories and I feel very honored to have been given the chance to collect their words.

I invite others to share their stories too.

---------Real Stories About Breast Milk Sharing--------

On Adoption:

" As an adoptive mother that wanted to give the best to my baby, I was touched by the generosity of women who helped him get back on the growth curve with an appropriate rate of weight gain. When we had early pediatrician visits, his doctor assured us that he would always be little. I now hear that he is so tall for his age and I can't help but link the best possible nutrition for him as a contributor."

On Receiving:

"I received donor milk with my second child too. He was 11 pounds 8 ounces at birth and his blood sugar was low. I used donor milk in the hospital and it stabilized his sugar and we were able to avoid a trip to the NICU!"

"I first heard about donor milk when my first baby was 2 weeks old... He was born at 9 pounds 5 ounces and he was down to 8 pounds and 5 ounces [at our office visit]. My pediatrician told me to go to his house and get some donor milk out of his freezer!"

"My pediatrician told me to go to the hospital to get a SNS (Supplemental Nursing System*) to feed the baby with and to use that instead of a bottle. We used it... It was frustrating to figure out at home, but with my husband's help, we figured it out. I'm glad we used it."

" Accepting breast milk for my babies was by far the most humbling experience. I cried in front of donors, thanking them for giving my children life. Donors are so selfless."

"My baby got sicker and did not gain weight. My pediatrician suggested donor milk. I called my doula, talked to her about donor milk, and I got my husband on board. I began posting in Human Milk 4 Human Babies and Eats on Feets. I drove hours for milk, crossing state lines......"

On Safety and Health:

" I did not put any restrictions on donors. I found they were all very transparent about their medication usage, even for simple over-the-counter ones, like Ibuprofen. My [adopted] son had some marijuana exposure in utero and only had prenatal care during the last two months of pregnancy. I believe this allowed me to have a much more liberal perspective than other mothers may have."

"I was always upfront about my diet, caffeine intake, etc. with donors if they asked. I always let them know I followed a mostly plant-based diet but definitely drank coffee in the morning."

"I did screen pretty carefully. I only accepted pure donations. When there was money to be gained, I refused. I asked health questions even if I knew the mama- general health, medications, infectious diseases, monogamy, tobacco use, alcohol use, drug use etc. I actually had something drafted I would email or message each donor."

On Donating:

"It was easy to find people to donate to... My first donation was to a friend who adopted a baby......... I donated to a cousin who had supply issues. I donated to an aunt who went back to work and couldn't keep up. I donated to a friend who didn't respond to a pump and wanted to go out on a date night. I donated to a friend in the hospital who had preeclampsia and couldn't feed her baby for a few days. I donated to a mom with chronic low supply. And I donated to a few moms I didn't know but friends connected me."

"The only things I asked for were bags for my breast pump. Most moms had no problems with this. They would give me bags so I could pump and they got the milk I pumped, so it made sense."

"Since I had received donor milk, I knew what a blessing it was. I'm so glad I was able to both give and receive."

"After receiving donor milk, I became passionate about milk sharing. So I continued to pump once a day to donate milk. It was easy to find people to donate to... My first donation was to a friend who adopted a baby who was one day younger than my son."

"I've always though milk sharing was a great thing to do if you have the extra milk. I've never had a mom say there was anything wrong with my milk or anything. I would let other moms know that it's fine to do and there's nothing weird about it!"

Resources On Breast Milk Sharing:

  • Eats on Feets: Considered the "go to" organization for information about safety and the informed choice process of milk sharing, Eats on Feets has developed the 4 Pillars of Safe Breast milk sharing. The pillars include informed choice (knowing both the risks and benefits), donor screening (for lifestyle habits and health issues to mitigate the risk of potential disease and contaminants in milk), safe handling (to reduce bacterial contamination of donor milk) and home pasteurization (or the use of raw milk after thorough donor screening).
  • Human Milk 4 Human Babies: This informed milk sharing community is a global network (with virtual chapters in over 50 countries) with the mission of "fostering" communication between families who have decided to share breast milk. They "dream of a world where mothers from previous generations pass on the tradition of breastfeeding and are a wealth of knowledge and support."
  • American Academy of Nursing (Policy on Breast milk Sharing): This document provides guidance for health care professionals on the subject of "informally shared human milk," including informed choice, available research, screening protocols and methods of heat treating human milk to reduce potential infection risk.
  • Human Milk Banking Association of North America: This is a professional association for those that support non-profit donor human milk banking. There are 18 milk banks across the United States and Canada all of whom serve infants who require breast milk due to formula intolerance and other feeding issues and/or medical conditions. When additional milk is available the milk banks serve healthy infants who have been adopted.
* Note: A Supplemental Nursing System is a device that allows a mother to feed supplemental formula or breast milk at the breast.

Photo Credit: keatssycamore via Flickr.com.