“Looking back on my childhood, I cannot remember ever knowing a breastfeeding mother, let alone a mother who donated milk. Not my own mom, aunties, or any friend’s moms. I do vaguely remember overhearing conversations between adults while I lingered around the kitchen table, my mom used to share, ‘I breastfed Abigael for a couple of months but I just didn’t have the breasts for it so I went straight to formula with the other three.’ As a mother myself, I now know that what really happened with my mom, who was actually a teen mom, was she didn’t have the support she needed. She was led to believe common infant behaviors such as cluster feeding through developmental leaps meant she had no supply and needed to transition to formula. We have talked about this in great depth since I have become a mother myself and have discussed that in a time before Facebook and Google, there really were very limited resources available, and many mothers felt, and still do feel, like formula is their only option
Coming back to my own journey to donate milk, I have always, for as long as I can remember, been deeply maternal. I remember an occasion in lower primary school when the teacher asked us to share what we wanted to be when we grew up and I announced, very matter of factly to my peers, I was going to be a mom when I grew up. Knowing I would always have children relatively young, I was about 16 years old when I started watching family vloggers on Youtube. I remember being so excited every time one would announce a new pregnancy and would watch all of their nursery tours, birth stories, and milestone videos, while subconsciously taking notes for my future self.
One family vlogger who has been particularly influential to me is Ellen Fisher. I found her content not long after I went vegan at 17 years old. Ellen shares about her journey gently raising her four vegan children in Maui. In one of Ellen’s many postpartum videos, she shared she was expressing and donating breast milk to a local family and she had also done this during her previous breastfeeding journeys. This was the first time I had heard of donating breastmilk, and I decided to give her blog post on pumping milk a read. I was very intrigued as I still knew very little about breastmilk, only I wanted to try with my own children when the time came.
As I approached 20 years old, I was already engaged to my high school sweetheart and figured children probably weren’t too far off so I began to join vegan parenting groups on Facebook and started seeing many discussions for options when a mother could not breastfeed but also did not want to give dairy formula. Donor milk was a popular suggestion that appeared on many threads along with where to seek donor milk.
In March 2019, the week I turned 20, we found out we were expecting our first child. During my pregnancy, I knew I was going to give breastfeeding a go so in order to prepare I bought a pump, I went to the hospital breastfeeding class and I also informed my midwives breastfeeding was really important to me. I had a plan: just like Ellen Fisher, I would breastfeed and pump once a day to donate. If only it was that easy!
When my son was born, he actually couldn’t latch. This was really hard for me. Throughout my whole pregnancy, all of the family vlogging content, Facebook groups, and every other bit of information I had encountered, I had never heard of oral ties! Unfortunately, my hospital also did not have much information to offer me regarding this, which is mind-blowing because I have since learned oral ties are very common. The next few weeks were a blur, as they seem to be for many, if not all postpartum mamas. My milk did come in and I was fortunate enough to be able to use nipple shields to help my son latch. They reached that little bit further into his mouth, which without being able to flange his lips, he otherwise couldn’t latch. The restricted movement meant feeding was exhausting for him and in order to get enough milk with ineffective milk removal, he had to feed every 20-30 minutes. There was no way I was spending those spare 20 minutes pumping, I simply did not have it in me.
With the frequent feeding and still no real information on oral ties, I was really struggling, and I actually turned to bed-sharing at 6 weeks postpartum. This was so I could feed every 20 minutes while still laying down. I mustered up the courage to ask about safe bed-sharing in a group and shared why I was choosing to bed share when someone (an absolute angel) pointed me to another group for tongue and lip ties. The Facebook group ‘tongue and lip tie support Australia’ saved our feeding journey. They have created a provider list and have invaluable resources. At 9 weeks old, we had tongue, lip, and buccal ties lasered. It was immediately like a magic switch flicked, and my son came out of the procedure able to latch with no shields and could effectively drain a whole breast and remain full for up to 2 hours at a time.
Finally, I was able to create a routine for myself that involved leaving my bed and pumping when I had a chance; in the beginning, this wasn’t every day. Eventually, I had enough frozen milk for a donation and it was now time to choose where to donate. Initially, I thought I would just donate through the breast milk bank, it seemed straightforward. In Australia, breast milk cannot be sold so I was quite surprised to find families who received donor milk through the breast milk bank were being charged hundreds of dollars for a couple of liters. It is written on the site this money is not for the breast milk itself, rather it is for the processing and cost of running the charity. It didn’t sit well with me to know families would have to pay so much money for something that should be free. The testing was also rigorous, and they would only accept whole liters (I am not sure if this is still the case).
The other option I found was ‘Human milk 4 Human babies.’ This is a worldwide network that can be found on social media with hundreds of charters. You can go to their world map and find your closest charter, or you can search on Facebook ‘Human milk 4 Human babies’ followed by your state. It was only once I joined my state’s group I truly understood how important donor milk was. Previously, I hadn’t known about breast milk being ‘alive’ and that while formula does meet nutrition requirements, it doesn’t have those living antibodies that form our immunity.
The diversity in these groups and the reasons people seek milk have many times left me both heartbroken for those families, but also so empowered to keep giving. There is no obligation to share why you are requesting or donating but many do. Some babies are preemie, some have a life-threatening illness, some have cows milk protein allergy, some mamas have insufficient glandular tissue, some need a top-up, some are just supplementing while the mom is on a quick course of antibiotics or in hospital, some are foster or adoptive parents, some children are exclusively donor fed, and some parents only request it when their child has a cold. There are many reasons and no request is viewed as more important than another and no donation is seen as too small.
My very first donation was to a toddler who had already weaned and just needed a boost getting over the flu. It was only a few hundred milliliters, but it was a nice introduction to what the exchange is like. After that, I donated randomly whenever I had enough, and to different families each time. Being my milk is dairy-free, it is in higher demand. There are many children with allergies and not as many dairy-free donors. My first regular recipient was a little girl who was diagnosed as a failure to thrive and was being fed via a feeding tube. Formulas were not working anymore. When I donated, her mama kindly sent me some photos of her and shared her progress, within two donations of several liters she had gained enough weight to begin weaning off her tube. I cannot describe the joy I felt for this family and this is what made me determined to set donation goals and to continue to donate. I am now a regular donor for another family and so far I have donated a combined total of 18L since June 2020. I am hoping to reach 25L by the end of 2021 when we plan to grow our family, and I hope I am able to donate with that baby too.
I have proudly shared my struggles with oral ties, joys with donor milk, and now our journey through extended breastfeeding on my Instagram and have been delighted to see some peers also start donating and some friends who had previously not breastfed, access more support and breastfeed their following babies. One mama in particular who stands out is a bereaved mother who has donated in honor of her still-born daughter, Odette. I am left in awe of the selflessness and strength I see in both donors and recipients time and time again.
Human milk 4 Human babies have strict moderators in their groups to ensure there is no unwarranted advice or judgment on any posts and all discussions are on the topic of donor milk. Whether you are a formula or breastfeeding parent, these groups are a safe space waiting to welcome you and that is something I truly believe every parent can benefit from.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Abigael Callcott from QLD, Australia. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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