When I found out my underweight baby wasn’t tolerating my breast milk, I opted to use donor breast milk. One donor ended up pumping extra milk for my baby for over a year!
My second child Jack was born at 1 am on the first of September, four weeks early just like my firstborn Peter. Jack is now three, and these days I can be a lot more honest with myself about the mother I have been to Jack, particularly during his first year.
My husband works for a very progressive company that offers four months of gender-equal paid parental leave to the baby’s primary caregiver. Early on in my pregnancy with Jack we’d discussed the possibility of him taking six weeks’ leave so that I could keep running my small-yet-demanding business with minimal interruption to our business processes and staff. Long story short, through a series of communication breakdowns, misunderstandings and factors outside both of our control, he ended up taking just 10 days off. So baby Jack came to work with me. From three weeks of age. In a CBD co-working space. I know, I know. It was a recipe for disaster.
Jack began to take really long naps at work, and in a misguided effort to avoid ‘over-boobing’ Jack (like I felt I had done with my firstborn Peter), once he popped off the boob toward the end of a feed, I wouldn’t attempt to relatch him. Peter hadn’t napped well as a baby so when Jack’s morning naps stretched longer and longer, I didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. It turns out that letting Jack sleep more and feed less meant I had overcorrected. Badly.
5 months old and just over 5kg
Around five months old, Jack was still tiny. He was just over 5kg and still wearing newborn sized clothes – well below the lowest percentile line on the growth charts. His paediatrician told me he had a ‘failure to thrive’. I felt like I was in a Call the Midwife episode. Over the course of the next two months, I woke him up from naps to breastfeed, and topped him up with my breast milk that I’d collected in a Haakaa pump and generally tried to get more into him. We started feeding him pureed food, which we’d never done with Peter (who we had done baby-led weaning with), but that uncovered a really interesting finding.
My baby wasn’t tolerating my breast milk or certain foods
Jack seemed to have negative reactions to foods that I regularly ate (blueberries, chicken, rice, pumpkin). But when my helper cooked him foods that I didn’t really eat – tofu, white fish, yam, pears – he tolerated them. It was a long and winding road, supported by both mainstream and holistic health practitioners, but in the end it seemed that Jack wasn’t tolerating my breast milk, specifically, and any foods that I’d eaten that would’ve been present in my breast milk. He struggled to keep many different foods down and as he also kept spitting up my breast milk, we were worried about him getting enough nutrients. Since I’d consumed dairy products, the formula route was going to be tricky. I asked my paed for her thoughts on us trying donor breast milk. She was refreshingly chill about it, so off I went.
Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB) donor breast milk
I’d learned about the organisation Human Milk 4 Human Babies (HM4HB) from a friend in my mothers’ group. She’d been hospitalised when her son was a few weeks old and the incident had caused her to stop breastfeeding. In order for her to keep giving her newborn breast milk, she had turned to HM4HB for help. I joined the Singapore HM4HB Facebook group and started scrolling through the posts.
Donor breast milk: how does it work?
Typically Mums with excess breast milk will post in the group and specify the age of their baby, their diet (including whether they smoke or take any supplements), the volume of breast milk they are willing to ‘bless’, their general location and whether they have any special requests for the exchange. Special requests are usually along the lines of whether they have a preferred brand of breast milk storage bags, if the collection needs to be at a certain time of day, or if they are happy to accept something other than breast milk storage bags (common alternatives are diapers or wipes). The exchanges between milk donors and milk recipients are never for material gain, but it’s good form for the milk recipient to give the milk donor replacement breast milk storage bags to at least cover the bags that the donated milk is packed in.
Pro tip: Don’t go cheap. Invest in the top-of-the-line breast milk storage bags and bend over backwards to get your donor’s preferred brand so that you can become that donor’s preferred recipient. And I’ve never met a breastfeeding mother who didn’t appreciate a sneaky little cupcake now and then. Put in a little effort to show your appreciation.
27 mums donated their breast milk to nourish my son
So that’s how my journey of using donor breast milk began. I commented on a bunch of posts; those turned into DMs, which turned into late-night island-wide taxi rides with a wheelie esky (that’s Aussie for a cooler box). I don’t think I even asked my husband how he felt about using someone else’s breast milk before I arranged the first exchange (for the record, he felt it was weird). I didn’t feel weird about it at all. I’ve always had a really strong sense of maternal community and had even offered to direct-feed a friend’s baby once when we were out and she was having a really difficult time with bleeding nipples and a hungry baby (in hindsight, that was probably weird of me to offer, but it is what it is). In the end, over the course of two years, 27 mums across Singapore donated their hard-earned breast milk to feed and nourish my son. Three mums, in particular, became long-term donors for Jack.
Bevin kept pumping her breast milk for Jack
Bevin lived around the corner from me and ended up pumping milk for Jack for the better part of a year. I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to produce the perfect amount of milk for her second baby and my second baby. Bevin’s daughter only directly latched, so initially Bevin was looking to bless her existing stash of frozen breast milk – after that she could’ve ramped down her pumping regime to allow her supply to equilibrize. But she didn’t. Bevin kept pumping just for Jack. For another year. She woke up, dog tired, and pumped milk for him at 3 am (sometimes the milk bags had the time of the pumping session) because I could not. She spent time that she could have spent sleeping, or on much-needed self-care, to pump, pack, freeze, wash, sterilize, repeat, repeat, repeat – to help Jack thrive, when I couldn’t give him what he needed. She even contacted me after the birth of her third child, to see if – by chance – I still needed milk. There is nothing that I could ever do to repay what Bevin, Yan, Rachel, Chrystal, Wei Ling, Angel, Gena, Beirong, Mazuin, Hui Min, Sharee, Pippy, Stephanie, Shuting, Shiwen, Clara, Vera, Gina, Estelle, Christine, Shyuan, Stella, Jit, Elizabeth, Joyce, Miazle and Bee Yong have done for my son and me.
Jack went from below the third percentile to a healthy 85th percentile
Using donor milk isn’t simply an easy way out. The panic of grabbing a few frozen milk bags and realising that what you thought was another layer of stacked milk is actually a bag of frozen peas is real. The panic of ‘missing out’ on your preferred donor posts and not knowing whether you’ll be able to find another donor before your last bottle runs out is terrifying when you have a very underweight baby that needs all the nutrients they can get. In an effort to help smooth the supply/demand curve and ease the anxiety I ended up with two huge chest freezers that I kept at my office (they wouldn’t have fitted in my flat). I would do it a million times over to see Jack thrive the way he has – jumping from well below the third percentile line to a healthy 85th percentile for height and weight.
I silently suffered from postnatal depression after Jack was born. There were a lot of contributing factors, but no one person or one reason was to blame. Of course, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like I am to blame and when I look back at the terribly, shockingly, heartbreakingly thin collection of photos I took of just Jack as a baby (and not Jack beside his brother), the guilt thickens into a solid lump. I can’t find a single photo of me breastfeeding Jack. I can’t even find a single photo of me bottle feeding Jack. This makes me cry. I have heaps of photos (both iPhone snaps and professional shots) of me breastfeeding his older and younger brother, but not one of him.
Whatever your reason for needing donor breastmilk for your baby, you don’t need to feel guilty about it, or feel that it makes you somewhat less than you should be. Maybe that’s advice I need to hear louder myself.
Breast milk donor Bevin: I donated my breast milk to help others
“I am a mother to three beautiful girls, age 8, 3 and 9 months. My first two breastfed until they were 1 year old before dairy milk was introduced to them. I am currently still breastfeeding my youngest daughter. For my second girl, my supply did not come immediately so I had to pump regularly to build up my supply. As I was expressing my breast milk about every 2-3 hours throughout the day, my stash of milk in the freezer began to increase.
I came to know of HM4HB Facebook group where donors can donate their excess breast milk to other children in need. I posted on the page and a few mothers got in touch with me. Elise was one of them. I feel honoured that I am able to bless Elise’s child, Jack with my excess breast milk.
The thought of helping Jack kept me motivated whenever I felt lazy and thought of skipping a pump. I am glad that I found Elise and I am thankful that she trusted me to give her baby my milk.” – Bevin, milk donor mama.
Breast Milk Donations
If you are keen to donate your breast milk or if you need donor breast milk for your baby do get in touch with: