The Morning Stroll

Why Our Experience with the NICU Made Me Want to Donate My Milk

March 9, 2016

When I think back on Mila’s birth, I feel a lot of emotions remembering the details. The biggest thing I still feel, and the thing that usually prevents me from thinking about it much longer, is the heartache I felt when our daughter was taken the NICU. It wasn’t how I had imagined her birth, both of us getting an infection that gave her a fever of 103 and her blood sugar and oxygen dropping dangerously low.

Frozen breast milk

Her dad wasn’t allowed to cut the cord, and I was able to only hold her for 15 seconds, long enough to take a couple pictures, before they rushed her off. Though no one is to blame and things don't always go as expected, I still feel as though I was "robbed" of the picturesque after-birth moments and hospital stay.

When we were taken upstairs about two hours later to the room where we’d spend the remainder of our time, the nurses asked me to rest, but I needed to get to the NICU to see my baby. The nurses in the NICU wanted me to breastfeed her as soon as possible. We finally made it there four hours after her birth and it was a beautiful miracle when she latched on the first try.

But, because my milk wouldn’t come in until about four days later, the colostrum wasn’t enough to sustain her. She was still fighting the infection and needed to have nourishment. When we went back to the NICU for her next feeding three hours later, the nurse told me that they had to start her on formula, and that they were giving her almost triple the amount of food a one-day old was supposed to be getting.

My heart sank. I had wanted to exclusively breastfeed. I was also very concerned about how much they were feeding her, since I knew her tummy was so tiny. I worried she would be overly hungry after this and gain too much weight (I now know that's not really possible for a newborn). I worried she would only want the bottle after this and not my breast. And at the same time, I knew she was struggling to maintain a stable blood sugar level. She was struggling to reduce her fever but also keep her body warm. She was on fluids and antibiotics and in and out of an incubator. My heart sank. But she needed it. She needed the formula. I had to get over my plans as I settled into the chair in the NICU and began feeding her from the bottle.

I can’t adequately explain how sad it made me feel, her being in there, a little paddle taped to her arm, holding the IV in place.  Those days in the hospital were supposed to be joy-filled, and they were a little bit. But they were mostly lonely and depressing for my husband and me. It started to feel a little bit like jail, just watching the clouds pass the window, wondering when we could leave with our baby. I’m thankful for the nurses and the doctors in the NICU. I’m thankful that she was able to get what limited colostrum I had. I’m thankful for the formula, even, because it sustained her. But how I had wished it was breast milk.

Since that experience, I think often of families who experience similar situations. I think often of babies fighting infections, or premature babies, or babies in the NICU for much longer than our daughter. And I wanted to know if there was something I could do. That’s why I decided that I wanted to donate my breastmilk.The Human Milk Banking Association of North America is the organization overseeing multiple milk banks in the United States. (This is not to be confused with the National Milk Bank, a Prolacta Bioscience company using milk donation as a guise in order to make money off of human milk. Do not donate to them unless you are okay with your milk being sold for profit.) After some research, I located the closest HMBANA-affiliated milk bank. Their process is pretty straightforward. You contact them, they ask a series of questions to determine medical eligibility, they mail additional forms to be filled out and sent back, they contact your OBGYN and your baby's pediatrician to be sure you are both in good health, you take a blood test, and, once you have 200 oz., they send a cooler for you to fill and send back to them. All of the milk donated goes to infants who desperately need it and at no cost to the receiving families.

Breast milk gives premature babies all sorts of nutrients, leukoctyes, and antibodies, helping them fight infection better than if they are fed formula, ultimately giving them a greater chance of survival.

It took me about four months to reach 220 oz. Over time, I could see my supply falling. Where I could once pump five ounces per breast, some days I would only get an ounce or two per breast. When I first started, I had to make sure I only pumped once a day, so that I wouldn't get an oversupply of milk and negatively impact my own daughter's feeding. By the end, I was only able to pump once per day because that was all the extra milk I had. But it was worth it when we packed it all up to send to the milk bank. 

We are so blessed that our daughter is healthy and happy now, but working to help other little babies gives me comfort and somehow makes me feel a little more in control. If you’re a breastfeeding mama and you have the time, supply, and ability to donate, I highly recommend it.