Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Issue 9 of Holl & Lane Magazine.
Words and images by Melissa Crooks
My breastfeeding journey has been just that, a journey with highs and lows and everything in between. I had never thought or prepared myself for how emotionally difficult it would be.
From the first days and weeks of our son’s new life, every nursing session ended with either myself in tears or my son - with a good portion of the time both of us. As my son was not able to latch for a full nursing session until six weeks old, I had quickly become good friends with my breast pump. I heard about milk donation at my six week postpartum appointment with our son. As I was a first time mom I wasn’t really sure how much was a typical amount of breast milk to express so I just kept pumping. Only later when I was speaking with my OBGYN and I told him about how much I was pumping, he mentioned that milk donation was something I should consider.
I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of milk donation, I had been a blood donor since high school, I am a registered bone marrow donor and an organ donor so I didn’t think twice about starting the donation process.
As I read stories from mothers who donated and mothers whose babies received donor milk I knew that I wanted to help. Unfortunately, due to the amount of caffeine I was consuming at the time as a new mom, I was unable to donate but it didn’t stop me from talking about it with whomever would listen. I had decided when the time came if I was lucky enough to have another baby I would be donating my extra milk. As luck would have it 3 years after our son was born we found out that we were expecting our daughter. While I was still pregnant I contacted the St. Luke’s Milk Bank in Kansas City, Missouri to see what I would need to do to make sure that I would be able to donate.
The donor registration was simple. It started with an over the phone interview regarding my habits as far as if I smoked, if and what medications I took, amount of caffeine I consumed, and other general health questions. After I had passed the initial screening I received a more in depth packet that was filled out by myself and my OBGYN regarding my health before and after pregnancy. My OBGYN also performed the blood draw required.
Once I became an approved donor I received storage bags, a special shipping freezer box, and prepaid labels. As I was already pumping for my daughter, pumping to send donations to the milk bank didn’t take any additional time, energy, or effort and it was a relief to know that my milk would be used for someone that was truly in need.
When I sent my first shipment, I had a hard time letting go. Packing my milk made me anxious, worrying that the ice packs wouldn’t last as I didn’t have access to dry ice, worrying that the box would get lost in the mail. I tracked my milk packages constantly refreshing the screen to see if my milk had been dropped off and signed for. The moment of relief when I not only saw that it had been delivered but the milk bank sent me an email confirming that my milk had arrived, I felt I could finally breathe.
I knew that I wanted to try to donate as long as my daughter was nursing and while the local milk bank took only up to the child’s first birthday the Milk Bank of Indiana would take milk until a baby’s 2nd birthday. The Milk Bank of Indiana had started creating milk depots in the St. Louis area. A milk depot is a location that has a special freezer that is only for milk donation and employees have been trained on how to accept and document milk donations to ensure that the milk is shipped safely and correctly to the milk bank.
Milk depots can be hospitals, doctor’s offices, or like the one I decided to use that was a store very active in the breastfeeding community. Approved donors would go to a location and “drop” their milk. Once they had a large shipment they would bulk ship multiple donor’s milk. For myself, this took a lot of the anxiety away of shipping my milk. In my area, I was not able to easily get dry ice which is the best source of keeping breast milk frozen while shipping. I was able to use freezer packs, but every shipment was very stressful as I had worked so hard to pump that extra milk and I was almost in tears if an ounce spilled or was wasted.
As my daughter's first birthday approached we were still nursing and I was still able to pump at least an extra 5-10 ounces a day. I contacted the Milk Bank of Indiana who was able to move all my paperwork over from the local milk bank without any issues. Both of the milk banks that I worked with were very friendly, knowledgeable, and willing to go above and beyond to answer any questions that I might have.
I speak often and openly about my struggles with breastfeeding as well my experiences with milk donation. I want people to know that breastfeeding is hard and it is a commitment that takes you from your highest highs to your lowest lows, all within a matter of a few hours. I want people to know that donating milk is no different than donating blood. That it needs to be brought up as an option just like cord blood banking or donation. That for babies that are most in need breast milk is sometimes the only option that can bring them home to their families.
I documented my milk shipments on social media to encourage and bring awareness. If I hadn’t spoken to my OBGYN about the amount of extra milk I had, I would have never known milk donation was an option. Since documenting my milk drops on social media I have had friends ask more about nursing, ask about the donation process, and I even found out that one of my friend’s daughters was born premature and used donor milk! While it wasn’t my milk her thankfulness and kind words that she expressed to me confirmed that what I had done was the right choice.
Nursing was an emotionally harder experience than I had ever thought and with that in mind I feel it was the driving force as to why I had to donate. I couldn’t help but think if I was feeling these emotions so strongly, mothers who are not able to provide for their children must feel utterly lost. This was something that no amount of money could buy or fix - it had to come from another mother. I still have a few bags of milk that are expired that I wasn’t able to send due to some medications I had to take at one point. I can’t throw them away, even though my baby is now 2 and she has not nursed since she was 20 months old. There is no need to keep them and they aren’t “good” to anyone at this point. But I see them at the bottom of my freezer and it makes me feel proud. Proud that I was able to help a mother, proud that I helped a baby get well enough to go home to its family, and proud that I was able to pump over 1300 ounces of breast milk.