These few words form the crux of the most polarizing parenting debate ever. Yes ‘Fed Is Best’ but what if the debate was not confined to just breastfeeding versus formula? What if there was a third option? This is the question I had when a friend recently adopted a beautiful baby girl. She did not carry her baby for 9 months, but she was clear that her daughter would get all the goodness of breastmilk. In another part of the city, was another mother, who was blessed with extra supply … so much so, that she was looking to donate. She was a mother who could not breastfeed the conventional way, but had the grit and perseverance to nurture, not one, but two little girls.
Last December, we welcomed our baby with a unilateral complete cleft lip and palate. A cleft is a developmental condition that occurs in utero and could be described as an incomplete closure of the lip and or palate. It essentially meant that latching or suction would have been impossible.
When we first found out via the USG, it shook our world, but as we settled into finalizing our resources which would help us care for our baby, we waited in readiness for this gorgeous little soul who had chosen us to be her parents and we couldn’t wait to hold her. We were in love!
Sure, my nursing dream was snatched away from me with that one scan, but it gave me an opportunity to really appreciate the effort that pumping mums put into the whole process and the gumption it takes to just keep going.
Getting started, was all about using the right pump and sticking to a rigid schedule even if it meant sacrificing night outs with my friends, waking up in the middle of the night for months on end just to pump or even the readiness to pump anywhere and I mean ANYWHERE.
I was lucky though, to be blessed with abundant supply, so much so that I was actually running out of freezer space! I went through my fridge freezer, then a mini fridge and soon we even had to invest in a little commercial freezer. So here I was with excess milk my daughter clearly couldn’t consume, and since I couldn’t store beyond a point, I started to look at the next logical step, donation.
I contacted several hospitals across Mumbai to ask if they had milk banks and it broke my heart that even the wealthiest private hospitals do not have a human milk bank. I was told that operating a milk bank is cumbersome, with its strict protocol and rules. The convenience of sterile formula clearly had an edge over human milk.
Eventually my search led me to SION hospital, that runs Mumbai’s first human milk bank. However, we had a very unfortunate turn of events when none of my donation cleared the criteria for use in spite of having a chit for clean health and the fact that my own baby was thriving rather well on my breast milk alone. It’s a mystery that remains unsolved till this day. Even so, they continued to welcome my donations with open arms and I am grateful that they were with me all along and never once turned me down.
To qualify for donation, one needs to clear a couple of mandatory tests as a donor and then collect the milk in sterile containers making sure that the bottles and the pump parts are also sterilized before expression. Milk can be refrigerated or frozen immediately after collection and should be transported to the facility at the earliest.
It was around the same time that I also discovered “milk sharing”.
Milk sharing, exchange or wet nursing is not advised on paper since the milk may not be pasteurized or one may not be aware of the mothers medical history BUT it’s a universal phenomenon, which takes place unofficially all over the globe. It happens within families, among strangers, between friends and it happened with me. My closest friends were really generous in their offer to share their milk at the time of Tara’s birth. I just wanted to make sure that there was backup available in case my milk kicked in late.
I did not know then, that soon, I would embark on a ‘sharing journey’ that would bring my breastfeeding and pumping journey full circle.
Last year, a very dear friend adopted a beautiful baby girl and she called up inquiring about milk banks for procuring human milk. I jumped in and asked her if she would be comfortable accepting my milk. I also made clear to her my unexplained and unresolved history with the hospital donations. She was brave enough to test it out on her bub and the decision was made to home pasteurize the milk to further ensure safety and start what we jokingly called the ‘milk mafia’ exchange! To this day I applaud her courage for even thinking of an option like this for her bub and taking a chance with me. Her daughter will always be my little ‘milkling.’ It was with her that I completed my pumping journey. It gave me the closure I was looking for.
From breastfeeding my first child, to expressing exclusively for my second, juggling rigorous pump schedules, the heartache of losing several hundred ounces to unexplained contamination and then re-discovering the joys of sharing milk, I consider myself fortunate to have experienced the whole spectrum of feeding which is not restricted to the breast or the bottle alone.
Nameeta Sohoni is a communication designer, turned baby food blogger, turned a stay at home mamma of two babies, currently on a sabbatical from everything! She blogs about her mommy adventures at https://nomnommum.com/