This is a guest post by Robin Atherton. My family was the grateful recipient of Robin's breastmilk when Nina was two weeks old and we will be forever grateful for this. This is Robin's story of receiving donor milk, and going on to donate milk to other families.
During my pregnancy, I remember someone asking me if I was going to breastfeed. I thought it a rather odd question. To me, breast + baby = milk. I had vague recollections of my mum and sister saying they had issues with breastfeeding, but I hadn't related either story in my head.
When I was born, my parents were in a particularly stressful living arrangement with my maternal grandparents. My grandma was sick with hyperthyroidism and money was tight. They were also planning to emigrate to South Africa. By my mum’s reckoning, I was four weeks overdue, but the official view was that I was born at 42 weeks. Mum’s labour was induced, and I was born two hours later. She went into shock, but not treated for it, as no one recognized the symptoms. Her milk supply didn't stand a chance, and, unbeknown to all of us until a year ago, I was born with a lip-tie and posterior tongue-tie. By six weeks Mum’s milk supply had dropped to almost nothing and she was only feeding me in the evening. A few days later, my parents moved us to Johannesburg. Mum told me I was raised on semi-skimmed milk, but I don’t know at what age this was introduced, or whether I was formula fed first and given cow’s milk later on.
My sister’s story was slightly different. She had a pretty standard labour in hospital and a vaginal birth after ~6 hours of active labour. Her son lost about 10% of his birth weight and this worried the midwives. They put her on a strict feeding regime, waking her and my nephew constantly throughout the night and monitoring them throughout the day, for the first five days in hospital. She discharged herself so she could go home and get some rest. My nephew soon gained heaps of weight and was thriving and he was breastfed for 14 months. My niece was born at home after a very short labour and took well to the breast and was breastfed for roughly the same amount of time as my nephew.
My son Kōpi was born posterior at home in very relaxed circumstances after a long pre-labour and an average active labour of ~7 hours. I had been so keen for him to breastcrawl, but the cord was very short, so this wasn't practical. He didn't take well to the breast and I hand-expressed colostrum and fed it to him on my finger. He would latch on and suckle and I thought that was it, easy peasy, except he was permanently latched on, or asleep. I assumed that’s what all babies did, so I didn't really worry.
My midwife was not concerned that he hadn't yet passed a stool since the last of the meconium, nor that he had urites in his nappies (a sign of dehydration). “Are you getting six good wet nappies a day?” I had no idea what a good wet nappy was, but I changed him six times a day, so I guessed so. After two weeks of continuous weight-loss (born 4kg, lost 560g) my midwife said she thought there was a problem and asked if I preferred a referral to a lactation consultant at the hospital or a paediatrician Thinking a lactation consultant would treat us more holistically, I asked to be referred to her. We got an immediate appointment, and saw her for the first time when Kōpi was two weeks old. She watched him feed and pumped my left breast with a hospital grade pump. In that ten minutes she’d collected 7ml. “You don’t have enough milk to feed your baby.” she said. I wish I had known then that how much you can pump is NO indication of how much milk you have. I was devastated, which way to turn now?
The lactation consultant suggested several ways to increase my milk supply: homoeopathics, herbs, pumping around the clock and switch-feeding (five minutes on each side twice). Then she suggested that on my way home I ought to go to the supermarket and buy two sachets of formula. “Your baby is starving and needs feeding.” I said I would not resort to formula and that I knew a large enough community of breastfeeding mothers to be able to supplement Kōpi with donated breast milk. She said she would not be able to endorse that, and gave me a leaflet about the risks of milk-sharing. I repeated my wish to use donated milk and she said Kōpi MUST put on 20g overnight or she would refer is to the paediatrician and Kōpi could end up being force-fed formula.
On my way home I stopped at my friend’s house. Our babies were due the same day, but her baby came earlier than his due date and was 17 days older than Kōpi. She invited me in, made me some dinner and offered to wet-nurse Kōpi. I burst into tears at such an amazing offer, and I didn't hesitate to agree. Kōpi latched on a gulped down all she had to offer. Immediately, he was a different baby. He fell into a deep and satisfying sleep, waking a few hours later to pass his first stools since birth. She then fed him again and we made an arrangement to do the same the next day before our appointment. At the weigh-in, Kōpi had gained 85g overnight, much to my immense relief. The lactation consultant was pleased, if not a little surprised. She said that my refusal to use formula had taken her a long way outside her comfort zone. She was still cautious, however, and said he needed to keep putting on weight and asked us to return the next day. I said we were going away and we would be back in four days (I wanted to buy us some time), so we made an appointment for four days time. In those four days, my friend wet-nursed him and I fed him constantly, expressing between feeds and topping him up with my own expressed breast milk.
Had I not kept a diary of these first weeks, I don’t think I would have been able to remember the sequence of events. I would spend 40-60 minutes feeding, 30 minutes pumping, 30 minutes dozing, and then start again, all day and all night. I didn't know where I was, what I was doing, I barely ate and I cannot remember sleeping for more than half an hour at a time. Eventually, for my sanity, I stopped pumping at night so I could get some rest.
I asked a couple of friends who were breastfeeding their babies and toddlers if they could express whatever they could for me. It was such a lovely feeling when my friend H turned up on my doorstep with a manual pump. While she showed me how to use it, I looked on in envy at the milk pouring from her breast, “Can I have that for Kōpi please?” She tipped it into a small bottle and gave me several bags of breast milk ice cubes, which I placed very carefully in the freezer. I started using my friend’s frozen stocks when Kōpi was 18 days old, about 20-25mls once or twice a day (I didn't want to run out, so I had to ration it a bit). When we returned to the lactation consultant the day before he was three weeks old, he’d gained another 150g. In the next few days, more milk came to my door from four more milky mamas, all of whom we will be indebted to forever. I believe those women saved my baby’s life! Small iceboxes with bottles of milk would appear on my doorstep with a bag of muffins, or a tub of soup or some other such yummy goodness. Four days later and Kōpi had gained another 300g. At around three and a half weeks, the lactation consultant signed us off.
I remember being engorged for the first time at four weeks and four days postpartum. What an amazing relief to have my milk in! Two days later I started exclusively breastfeeding him myself. At eight weeks old, I bumped into the lactation consultant at a breastfeeding meeting. She beamed from ear to ear. “I am very sorry I was so hard on you, but I needed you to know the severity of the situation. I am pleased you stuck to your guns and I am so proud of you. If I had been in your situation with any of my babies, I would have done the same thing.”
At eight week postpartum I donated some packets of milk. Kōpi had a dreadful cold and wasn't feeding much. Over the space of a week I had collected 950mls. My doula had another client in a similar situation and after we spoke on the phone, I sent the doula away with the milk and the herbal and homoeopathic remedies I’d been using. Shortly afterwards I started donating regularly to an adoptive mother in Wellington, and since then I have donated to eight women and wet-nursed two of their babies. It was such an amazing feeling to be able to pay such a gift forward..
Kōpi turned 27 months today (22nd September) and we are still breastfeeding. I have so many wonderful women to thank, especially Kōpi’s wet-nurse. We are still very close. Our boys are beautiful, healthy little toddlers. She calls Kōpi her ‘other son’. We will never forget each other.
Rachel is a writer and educator whose fields of interest include sexuality education, gender, feminism and youth development.