Dear grieving mama,
You know when you lose a baby everything changes, but your body moves forward like nothing happened. It carried that tiny baby long enough to trigger a complicated hormonal cocktail that causes your milk to come in so that little life can continue to grow outside you. But your baby is separated from you in a way nature never intended.
There will be no baby snuggles. There won’t be a sleepy, smiley, milk-drunk face looking up at you. But your body doesn’t know that, so your breasts swell and keep swelling with milk that has nowhere to go. The physical discomfort is only out-matched by the emotional pain.
The only advice my doctor gave me before I left the hospital sounded more like folklore and less like medical advice: “I hear cabbage leaves help. Bind them. The milk will stop.” (You’ve probably heard that one, too.)
The elevator walls from the maternity ward to the parking lot were covered with posters on vaccines, handwashing, and blood donation.
There was no advice on what to do when you had milk but no baby.
In the days that followed, everyone told me their method for halting milk production: cabbage (again), Sudafed, binding, and teas. I ignored the advice. What if I wanted to keep my milk for as long as I could?
That milk was my body’s last reminder I’d had a baby. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye—holding onto the milk was a little like holding onto her. What I needed was someone to tell me about milk donation, not milk suppression. I needed someone to tell me there was a mom sitting next to a NICU bed that held a fragile baby. A mother who was praying for a miracle as fervently as I had. A mother who needed to feed her baby but had no way to do it.
Milk donation is a niche topic, not everyone knows that medically fragile babies depend on donor milk. Their bodies can’t handle formula, and their mothers can’t provide it—stress may have ruined their supply, they may be fighting for their own lives in another room, or maybe they are gone altogether. It doesn’t matter why those babies need it, what matters is that they need it. There was nothing I could do for my baby, but I could have done something for someone else’s baby.
I couldn’t though . . . because no one told me.
Not a single person or medical provider mentioned it. Maybe they didn’t want to add insult to injury, but I wish someone, anyone, would have taken the risk and told me about milk donation.
Donation does as much good for the donor as it does for the recipients. It would have been healing to have kept my supply. It would have given me a long goodbye and time to process everything that happened, and it would have given me the chance to help save a baby when I couldn’t help my own. And the mother? Maybe I could help save her the same grief I was feeling.
But no one told me until it was too late, and I had one more what-if that laid heavy on my chest.
That’s not the end of my story, though.
Two years later my life had changed, and I realized it wasn’t too late. Here I was again, with another baby and more milk. Even though I wasn’t grieving, I knew there was another NICU with a mom and another baby who needed people to step up. This time I could be part of that support. This was one regret I could try to rectify.
Getting in contact with the Human Milk Banking Association was as easy as a Google search. There was a blood draw they paid for and a form my midwife filled out. The rules were few and obvious: approved medication only, no illicit drug use, no off-limits herbal supplements, and the milk needed to be frozen within 48 hours. The milk bank covered all shipping and then processing and pasteurizing costs. They did everything they could to make the process as easy as possible.
That doesn’t mean it was easy.
Good things often take effort and anyone who has nursed knows it’s something of a full-time job. Donating felt like constant overtime. I had more in common with the cows at that point than any of the other new moms. It was worth it though. There was nothing quite like the feeling of getting that first box ready to ship off knowing it was all worth it, there was a baby who needed it, and there were parents who now knew there was a group of loving strangers behind them to help buoy them up.
And for me? It was exactly what my heart needed to heal.
I still wish someone had told me sooner, I’d have done it then and I would do it again. So, dear grieving mama, know that you have more options than the one being offered. It might help you more than you realize.