“Would you like...” I heard myself asking a woman I had only met at a play-date twenty minutes prior, “me to breastfeed your baby?”
She looked at me uncertainly. Tears running down her face, the desperate cries of her hungry child piercing our conversation. Frustration and fear and I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE etched onto her face.
I reassured her that I was healthy and I disclosed my diet and medical history as it pertained to nursing a child. Someone beside me nodded, a mutual friend reassuring the woman that they’d known me for quite some time now and I was telling the truth. And she looked relieved - so relieved.
“Please,” she said desperately, placing her infant in my arms, “please, yes, please. Thank you so much.”
And THOSE, those were the words that changed my life.
I only nursed her son for a brief while. I squirted milk on his lips so that he would focus and when he smelled the milk, he lunged at my nipple and latched. I relaxed, felt my milk let down, and he sputtered as he hungrily gobbled it down. “It’s okay, little guy,” I said. When he had suckled enough to take the edge off his hunger and his mother had calmed down enough to feel confident trying again, I popped his latch and handed him back. This time, there were no tears. There was no panic, no crying, no frantic begging other moms for a bottle. “Place your nipple under his nose,” I told her, “and there you go!” Her child latched, she let down, and then she turned to me.
“Thank you, Sarah. I mean it. Thanks.” She looked at my daughter, who was barely old enough to sit on her own, and smiled kindly. “And thank you, Charlotte, for letting me borrow your momma for a little while.”
Although several other mothers at the play-date patted me on the back afterwards, a few days later they all met up for lunch to discuss the two of us. They did not invite either of us. Then they voted. I got the message via text message when I came home from an afternoon walk. I turned to my husband in utter disbelief. “I just got voted out of a mom group,” I said incredulously, “...because I nursed another woman’s baby.”
Nursing my daughter in public shortly after her second birthday.
Although that experience with the mom group was my first foray into informal milk-sharing, it was not my last. In fact, once I (and my nipples along with me) got sucked into informal milk-sharing, I never looked back. I have also been involved in formal donation to a bank that pasteurizes donors’ milk and distributes it to families in need. But to me, there is something unspeakably wonderful about informal milk-sharing. There is nothing like looking into a fellow parent’s eyes and KNOWING, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you have made a difference.
It’s an experience you just don’t have access to when your milk donation consists of a pump, a test tube, and a pre-paid mailer. I used to wonder: did the milk get there? Was it viable? Was it used? Did it help? But with another woman’s baby in my arms, I never wonder. I see the child suckling. I feel them relaxed and happy and warm against my body. I hear them swallow and watch as their eyelids become heavy and a sleepy, satisfied smile danced on their lips. I know that I helped.
Of course, informal milk-sharing is not limited to wet-nursing. During my pumping heyday, I had a neighbor who regularly mined my freezer for excess milk. After she mentioned once that her baby seemed to be having mild stomach upsets, I even started labeling my frozen bags of milk with the time of day (so she could keep the nucleotides and fat content straight) and whether I’d eaten dairy, gluten, spices, a new food, or common allergens in the two days prior. She was elated. “I just don’t get this sort of information from a milk bank,” she said. I may not have been present for every feeding, but I knew then too: I was helping. I knew that my milk was going to someone in need, knew that those hours I spent draining my breasts were truly appreciated. And the emotion attached was the same. The power to help another person, the ability to sustain the life of another child, is deliriously empowering no matter what the circumstances.
These are the communal experiences which have been peppered throughout my breastfeeding relationship with my daughter, who is now two years old and still nursing. Sometimes I wonder: how will I tell her about this when she is older? What will she think when I explain to her that I actively share milk because I believe that every parent has a fundamental right to provide human breastmilk for their child – at any age, for any reason? What questions will she have when she realizes that she has never seen another woman wet-nurse? If she one day becomes a parent, how will she view lactation and milk-sharing then?
With my nursling last week at the park. I think she’s cute.
As my being ousted from a mom group testifies, the truth is that while breastfeeding is touted for all of its health benefits and bonding superpowers, our society is still remarkably squeamish about sharing milk. I’m not sure why. After all, human breastmilk is human breastmilk regardless of whether the nipples involved are genetically related to the mouth that the milk flows into.
All I can hope is that my daughter is never thinks twice about one parent giving of their milk to another parent in need. And something tells me that as she grows up witnessing me sharing my milk and witnessing her father fully supporting this endeavor, she’ll be just fine.
Sarah Christensen is a mom who blogs about motherhood and daily life candidly, introspectively, and humorously at BecomingSarah.com. Christensen and her husband have one daughter, Charlotte, who is two years old and shows no signs of weaning. You can read her other breastfeeding posts cataloged here at Becoming Sarah.
Christensen's Related Links of Interest:
"Risks of Informal Breastmilk Sharing versus Formula Feeding" - PhD in Parenting
"Outsourcing Breast Milk" - Time Magazine
Breastmilk Donation Resource Page - DrMomma.org
Human Milk Banking and Other Donor Milk - KellyMom
Human Milk 4 Human Babies
Eats On Feets
Human Milk Banking Association of North America
World Milksharing Week
If you've provided for another baby as a wet nurse, or have utilized the gift of shared milk or wet nursing, and you'd like to tell your story to encourage others and raise awareness of milk sharing, write to us at DrMomma.email@example.com. We'd love to hear from you.
Breastfeeding Resources Page