How it Feels: Using Donated Breast Milk and Becoming A Donor

Despite the WHO’s recommendation that donated breast milk is the next best alternative to breastfeeding your own baby, many people don’t know that it is an option. Others find it strange, which seems odd, given that we rely on others for blood donations, stem cells, bone marrow and organs. There are currently 17 milk banks across the UK.

Mother Sider (and tribe member) Claire used donor milk when her daughter was in the SCU and then, to pay it forward, donated her own milk for six months.

Over to Claire…

Milk, milk, milk.

My little one arrived via an emergency C-section and had to go into a Special Care Unit for four days, thankfully nothing too serious. Her APGAR score was low an hour after birth so she was taken straight to the SCU. This was a shock to me – I was in a bit of a daze as I had only been with her for an hour and then she was away from me. Luckily my other half was with her, which was reassuring, but I still found it heartbreaking not being with her to look after her and support her, and only seeing pictures of her when he came back to check on me. The midwives advised me that I needed to start expressing as soon as possible as she would need as much milk as possible.

A brilliant graphic from La Leche League, showing the tummy capacities of newborns.

Initially, as I was recovering from the section, I couldn’t be with her in the SCU very much and had to express colostrum to be given via a feeding tube. I was hand expressing which was the most challenging, frustrating, unexpected and funny experience I had and certainly didn’t expect this on Day 1 of being a mummy. You need two hands to express plus another to catch the colostrum in the syringe… this is where hubby got involved he was on catching duty! To set the scene I was in a ward with three other new mummies plus all their visitors! So, the curtains were drawn round us the midwife showed us what to do The first time, I felt like a milking cow, having someone else grab my boob! Then I had a go and the midwife left us to it, thinking we have the knack. 15 minutes later, after squeezing, squashing and pushing and pulling and lots of shouts of ‘ouch’, ‘arrgghh’, ‘catch it!’ and ‘don’t miss it!’, with my husband chasing the syringe around my boob trying to catch the colostrum we had a syringe full! A high five moment, I’m sure you’ll agree – well we thought so! Thinking we had collected 10ml hubby went off to Special Care to show off our efforts and for E to have some ‘liquid gold’. When he returned, looking a bit sheepish I was thinking: please tell me you didn’t drop it! Husband assured me he’d delivered it safely but we had read the syringe wrong… what we’d thought was 10ml was actually only 1ml!! How depressing and soul destroying, E needed way more than this each day.

As I wasn’t able to do much skin-to-skin with E it took a while for my milk to come in fully, so it felt like expressing became my life for the first few days. Following a C-section it can take longer for your milk to come through compared to a natural delivery, but persevere! It will come in and then you will be fine. This article is very helpful post-section.

Thankfully the next shift of midwives had started and I was introduced to not just a single but a double breast pump: The Medela Symphony Double Electric Breast Pump. No messing around here! (Editor’s note: If you aren’t in hospital, ask your local NCT or hospital about hiring a hospital-grade pump. Alternatively, you can hire directly from Medela)

Attached to the pump every few hours, I pumped and pumped. Naturally, as demand for milk increased, my supply followed. Whilst this was happening, I still didn’t have enough milk for E for the first few days – a pump will never be as effective as a baby at removing milk from the breast. Consequently, we thought she would have to have formula but the hospital told us about donated breast milk. We didn’t know that there was such a thing! It is in very limited supply but thankfully they had some donated breast milk stored,which E was able to have. We felt so lucky that this was available to us we didn’t have to consider anything else. Donated breast milk has been screened for any nasty bacterias, then pasteurised, as it is used on immunosuppressed or underweight babies and is a great way to give back. After four days in special care E was given the all clear and we came home.

As for every new mother, life at home was a shock but we gradually got into our own way of doing things. My husband was a nag and quite rightly so in terms of making me take it easy and doing very little following the C-section, so that I could properly recover from the operation and get breastfeeding established.I continued to pump after every feed for the first six months. Whilst I didn’t always need to, this enabled me to donate breast milk and it was our way of saying ‘thank you’ to the brilliant ladies who had donated the milk that we used for E. I even pumped during the night for the first few months. The only time I didn’t pump was if we were out.

Donating is really easy. The Milk Bank send you a questionnaire and blood test kit. You then make an appointment with your local GP or nurse to take the bloods, and the kit is then sent back to The Milk Bank where your blood is then tested for HIV, syphilis, hepatitis and HTLV.

Once these tests are completed, a donation kit is provided. This includes sterile storage bottles and instructions on how to complete the expression for donation. You just pump in the usual way and store the milk in your freezer until a driver comes and collects it every few weeks.  Even if you only have 30ml to donate that could mean so much to a family who really want to breastfeed and, for whatever reason, are unable to. Please consider it if you are able to it made my heart melt when I heard about donated breast milk and that we could give this to E. To think that someone had been so kind was just amazing and we will always feel incredibly grateful.

Claire’s Top Tips for Donating Milk: 

  • Milk banks will ask  you for details of any medicines and supplements (including herbal/natural ones) that you take, and your intake of alcohol and caffeine. Taking these won’t necessarily stop you from becoming a donor but honesty is, of course, best.
  • To ensure a successful donation ensure you wash your hands thoroughly and that your pump is sterilised.
  • To prevent over supply only pump off what you want to. Don’t feel like you have to fully drain the breast unless you will be able to manage this supply when it comes in again.
  • Only express off the breast that you have just used to feed your little one, again so supply isn’t overstimulated.

Useful websites:
La Leche League
Human Milk for Human Babies
Eats on Feets 
The Milk Meg
Oxford Human Milk Bank (This is Claire’s local NHS Trust)

Claire, writing for The Mother Side x

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