I do­nate my breast milk, and this is why

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - VIRGIE TOWNSEND

Sev­eral weeks ago, I weighed 107 ounces of frozen breast milk, packed up the lit­tle bags in a FedEx box, and hur­ried out the door to catch an evening Ex­press ship­ment.

I set the box down in the pas­sen­ger seat and hoped my cargo wouldn’t melt be­fore its des­ti­na­tion. It took me about two weeks to col­lect the milk, and soon it would be on its way to a hu­man milk bank in Mas­sachusetts.

Af­ter the milk bank pro­cessed it, my milk would go on to neona­tal in­ten­sive care units through­out the North­east to feed pre­ma­ture in­fants.

I’m a hu­man milk donor — an ex­pe­ri­ence that has been both deeply re­ward­ing and some­what bizarre. As a child, my mom used to re­cite the adage “to whom much is given, much is re­quired.” She prob­a­bly meant some­thing like I should play the pi­ano in church. In­stead, I mail pack­ets of bod­ily flu­ids to strangers in New Eng­land.

Soon af­ter I de­liv­ered my first-born, it be­came clear that I pro­duce more milk than my baby could eat. I was in the hos­pi­tal when I felt an elec­tri­cal prick­ling spread over my chest and build into a stab­bing pres­sure. My milk had barged in, caus­ing se­vere en­gorge­ment.

My nurse wheeled in a yel­low hos­pi­tal pump and showed me how to as­sem­ble the si­phon­ing tubes, breast shields and bot­tles. Be­fore she left to con­tinue her rounds, she promised to check in on me again. When she re­turned an hour later, I had filled al­most six bot­tles — more than 15 ounces, half of the av­er­age peak amount of 30 ounces per day.

I felt like a Hol­stein that had just won the blue ribbon at the county fair. Be­fore I pumped, I had wor­ried that my body, which had strug­gled with in­fer­til­ity, would strug­gle to nour­ish my baby, too. Newly con­fi­dent in my abil­ity to breast­feed, I stuffed the gold am­poules in my purse and went home to feed the cutest new­born I’d ever set eyes on.

But my over­sup­ply of milk was a mixed bless­ing for my baby. On one hand, her pe­di­a­tri­cian raved about her growth curve. By 4 months old, she was dou­ble the size I was at her age. Her doc­tor rec­om­mended that I pump down the milk to the right amount be­fore feed­ing her.

Soon, bags of breast milk took over our re­frig­er­a­tor. My hus­band once walked in on me tak­ing an in­ven­tory of my frozen stock, saw the plas­tic pack­ets of milk scat­tered across the counter, and said with a start, “I feel like I’m in a drug den.”

My baby didn’t get around to eat­ing most of what I pumped. I threw some milk away just to free up space in our freezer, but it seemed like a waste. That’s when I be­gan think­ing about milk do­na­tion.

At first, I con­sid­ered find­ing some­one in my area who needed milk for their baby and ca­su­ally shar­ing it with them. But the more I thought about it, the more I won­dered about safety is­sues and ac­ci­den­tally mak­ing a baby ill. Last year, the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Pe­di­atrics is­sued a pol­icy state­ment against in­for­mal milk shar­ing be­cause of the risk of bac­te­rial and vi­ral con­tam­i­na­tion. A 2013 study found that 74 per cent of breast milk bought on the in­ter­net had high lev­els of bac­te­rial growth, par­tic­u­larly strep and staph.

I be­gan to look into hu­man milk banks. There are 18 in the United States and Canada that are af­fil­i­ated with the Hu­man Milk Bank­ing As­so­ci­a­tion of North Amer­ica, which sets guide­lines for en­sur­ing donor breast milk safety.

Milk banks pas­teur­ize donor milk to kill bac­te­ria, com­bine it with other donors’ milk to make sure the milk com­po­nents are well bal­anced, and test the milk for con­tam­i­na­tion. They then pro­vide the milk to pre­ma­ture ba­bies and other in­fants whose par­ents may not be able to breast­feed.

In 2016, 9.6 per cent of U.S. in­fants were born pre­ma­turely, which can cause a host of health is­sues, in­clud­ing necro­tiz­ing en­te­ro­col­i­tis (NEC), a se­ri­ous disease in which ba­bies’ in­testines are dam­aged or die, caus­ing waste to leak into their blood­stream. In 2013, preterm-birth com­pli­ca­tions were re­spon­si­ble for a third of U.S. in­fant deaths, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol.

As I pre­pared to do­nate, I re­searched how donor milk im­pacts pre­ma­ture ba­bies’ health com­pared to their own mother’s milk. I as­sumed that breast milk was breast milk and the health ben­e­fits would be sim­i­lar. In­stead, I found that al­though donor milk is still good for ba­bies, it’s prob­a­bly not as pow­er­ful, per­haps be­cause a mother’s milk com­po­si­tion rapidly changes to meet her baby’s needs.

A 2016 Pe­di­atrics study re­ported that hos­pi­tals that be­gan of­fer­ing donor milk to pre­ma­ture ba­bies saw a 2.6 per cent drop in rates of NEC. Ad­di­tion­ally, the rate of mothers breast­feed­ing their own ba­bies at the time of dis­charge rose by 10 per cent. But a few months later, a JAMA Pe­di­atrics ar­ti­cle re­ported that there were no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences be­tween rates of sep­sis and NEC in pre­emies who re­ceived donor milk and those who had for­mula.

Over­all, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion says pre­emies should drink their own mother’s milk when pos­si­ble, but rec­om­mends donor milk as the best backup.

Even though the re­search was some­times con­flict­ing or in­con­clu­sive, do­nat­ing my ex­cess milk made sense to me from a prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive. My baby couldn’t pos­si­bly drink ev­ery­thing I pro­duced, so my choices were to throw it away or let it feed a vul­ner­a­ble baby. Based on the re­search, do­nat­ing breast milk may ben­e­fit pre­ma­ture ba­bies a lit­tle, and a lit­tle ad­van­tage can mean ev­ery­thing to par­ents who are wor­ried about their child.

To be­come a donor, I had to pass a month­long screen­ing process, which in­cluded a phone in­ter­view, blood test for in­fec­tious disease, and re­leas­ing my baby’s and my med­i­cal records so the milk bank staff could en­sure do­nat­ing wouldn’t be detri­men­tal to ei­ther of us. I try to keep my milk med­i­ca­tion-free to en­sure that it’s safe for my baby and pre­emies’ frag­ile sys­tems.

Eight days af­ter I sent my first ship­ment to the hu­man milk bank, a fam­ily mem­ber’s son was born 10 weeks pre­ma­turely, weigh­ing less than three pounds. His par­ents and NICU gave him donor milk.

By now, my first ship­ment has prob­a­bly been pro­cessed, dis­trib­uted and fed to ba­bies I will never meet. Maybe that milk will help pre­vent in­fec­tions and en­cour­age their par­ents’ own breast­feed­ing ef­forts. Maybe it won’t.

But they’ll have full bel­lies, and that’s a start.

As a child, my mom used to re­cite the adage ‘to whom much is given, much is re­quired.’


Be­ing a milk donor has been both re­ward­ing and some­what bizarre, Virgie Townsend writes.

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