It Takes a Village: Peer-to-peer Milksharing




Peer-to-peer, grassroots community milksharing is replicating a tribal, "it takes a village" approach to child raising for the internet age. Since optimal nutrition is linked to human flourishing, the business of feeding babies has a tangible impact on future generations. Breastmilk is the optimal form of infant nutrition, but breastfeeding is not possible for everyone, leaving many to rely upon a competitive formula industry increasingly occupied by "Big Food" corporations. Milksharing provides an alternative that feeds babies, saves money, and weaves together human lives. I hope to help share this story.

I write in allegiance with World Milksharing Week, September 24-30, 2013: "We hope that by raising awareness about milksharing, families will never again feel forced into feeding breastmilk substitutes - an act which is not without risk to the health of the child. If a mother is unable to breastfeed, or unable to produce enough breastmilk, families can access the milk of another healthy woman through wet-nursing or milk donation. The incredible sense of community that is created among donor and recipient families who partake in milksharing is to be celebrated. Raising awareness about the possibility of milksharing will prevent thousands of ounces of breastmilk from being dumped down the drain by mothers who didn't know there was another option. Breastmilk is not a scarce commodity and there are women around the world who are willing to share."

The first half of this essay explains the circumstances that led me to seek out donor milk, and the second half describes milksharing and my experiences with it.

And so, my story:

I never so much as held a baby before my son was born in June 2013, three days before my 26th birthday. I didn't know a lot about babies, but I did always know that I wanted to breastfeed. In addition to being the "biologically normal" way to feed a baby, I was excited to participate in a sacred relationship that has been passed down before me from generation to generation.

I don't pass judgment on how other people feed their babies. Although some of the breastmilk versus formula camps can seem rabid and entrenched, I realize that life is complicated. Issues ranging from the economical (mothers working full-time jobs that don't allow time for pumping) to the medical (mothers undergoing chemotherapy) can make breastfeeding difficult or impossible for some.

But for myself, I was not comfortable feeding mass-market, industrial GMO formula to my baby.

Formula is not poison, but it doesn't measure up to breastmilk in several important ways. Breastmilk confers protection against infection by way of antibodies and immune cells. Its nutrient bioavailability means that it is more easily and efficiently digested. It also evolves over time, adapting to the changing needs of a growing baby. (See Ask Dr. Sears, "Nutrient by Nutrient Why Breast is Best".)

I educated myself about breastfeeding as much as possible while I was still pregnant. At 36 weeks, I was the only pregnant woman attending my local breastfeeding support group. I made advance contact with a lactation consultant should any issues arise, and I assembled a host of useful supplies, including nursing bras, a breast pump, and lanolin ointment.

After nearly 30 hours of labor, Ellis was born at The Birth Center in Bryn Mawr, PA - the oldest continually-operational birth center in the United States. I knew that I wanted a natural birth, for some of the same reasons that I wanted to breastfeed. And as a graduate student who studies altered states of consciousness, I wanted to experience childbirth full on.

His birth was everything I had hoped for - expansive, empowering, and free of medications and interventions. But breastfeeding immediately got off to a shaky start. In the first hours after birth, Ellis latched on tentatively only a handful of times, and he would never stay on for more than a few seconds.

It is usually a requirement that breastfeeding be established - with at least 2 successful feeds - before families are discharged from The Birth Center, but they needed to make an exception in our case. With an unexpectedly high number of laboring women arriving, the facilities were exceeding capacity, and in order to avoid transferring someone to the hospital, they needed to flip our room as soon as possible. We were discharged early and went on our way.

The following days were some of the most challenging of my life. We were hoping that breastfeeding would improve after Ellis adjusted to the world, but it didn't. Latching was difficult, and even when successful, he would frequently fall asleep while nursing. I hadn't slept for two straight nights by the time Ellis was born, and I was never able to catch up on that sleep. Ellis was crying constantly. Latching was painful, and before I learned about side-lying, I would sit up for hours every night desperately trying to feed him.

At our home visit two days later, the nurse did a weight check. Although all babies lose some weight after birth, our originally 8 lb 11 oz boy was nearing a loss of 10% of his birth weight - the threshold after which formula supplementation is often recommended. Even more worrying, he wasn't having any dirty diapers. The small part of me that had never changed diapers before might have been relieved, but I knew that it wasn't a good sign.

With the sleep deprivation, postpartum hormones, who knows - I started to panic. I knew that if breastfeeding is mismanaged, milk supply can plummet - a process referred to as "secondary lactation failure." If milk isn't regularly and efficiently removed from the breast, the body is signaled to ramp down production. I worried that I was doing something wrong, that I was messing up, and I beat myself up over it.

We visited with a lactation consultant, who provided us with her arsenal of tricks to increase milk supply: nursing on demand, rather than on a schedule; oatmeal, brewer's yeast, and black strap molasses lactation cookies; fenugreek and other herbal galactagogues; even a hoppy beer, which would double by taking the edge off my frayed nerves. I tried them all.

Despite that initial effort, a visit to the pediatrician five days after birth confirmed our fears: Ellis was down to 7 lb 10 oz. He had lost over a pound, 12% of his birth weight. The second lactation consultant at our pediatrician's office handed us a six-pack of ready-to-pour formula, and prescribed a draconian regimen: initiate breastfeeding every 2 hours, followed immediately by pumping, followed by feeding whatever expressed milk was produced to the baby through a syringe (to avoid the "nipple confusion" and breast aversion that sometimes occurs when introducing bottles too early). As soon as this was done once, it was nearly time to do it again. Every 2 hours, 24 hours a day.

That second lactation consultant watched us nurse. Ellis's latch was shallow, but otherwise seemed fine. But then she studied my breasts.

"Did your breasts grow during pregnancy?"

Not much, no, actually. No, they hadn't.

"Try the pumping, but you might not be able to produce enough milk to feed him."

I was shocked. I had heard the mantras so many times: "Trust your body to make the perfect amount of milk for your baby." "You can be an A cup or a triple D - you'll still make all the milk your baby needs." At this point, I was crying most of the time - and crying even more in knowing that my crying wasn't good for the baby. In the rare snippets of time that I probably should have been trying to sleep, I googled the conditions known as mammary hypoplasia and Insufficient Glandular Tissue (IGT). I had all the physical characteristics: widely spaced breasts, breast asymmetry, presence of stretch marks in the absence of significant growth, and a lack of fullness. Although it is impossible to tell by these traits alone whether milk supply will be adequate to feed a baby, all of the pieces came together in my case.

The reality of the situation began to sink in: I was experiencing primary lactation failure, as opposed to secondary. I realized that my body was not going to produce enough milk no matter what best habits or interventions I attempted. Even pumping around the clock, I was only ever able to produce 3-4 ounces per day.

I always knew that my breasts were very small, and I used to be happy with them. I never had trouble fitting them into clothes, and they never got in the way while I exercised. But suddenly I started viewing my body as broken, and myself as a failure. Between my sense of guilt and grieving the loss of my breastfeeding relationship, I was emotionally devastated.

In order to preserve sanity and maximize sleep, my husband started feeding Ellis mostly formula with a bottle while I pumped. Although at-breast supplemental nursing systems exist that channel formula or expressed milk through a tube while the baby nurses - thereby avoiding nipple confusion and maximally stimulating the body to produce more milk - I was too exhausted to tinker with yet another thing. The thought of sitting upright through every night feed with a container of milk tied around my neck (before sitting through another round of pumping!) and of constantly sanitizing minuscule plastic tubing was underwhelming. (Though if I ever have another baby, with time to prepare emotionally, I will probably try it out.)

It is unclear how many women experience primary lactation failure, but 1 in 1000 is the oft-cited figure. Lactation counselor Bettina Forbes infers from that estimate that 4,000 mothers with insufficient glandular tissue (IGT) give birth each year. To provide some perspective, she points out that that's roughly the same number as Down's Syndrome children born annually. Uncovering that reality was something of a karmic return for me - since I had previously assumed that, more often than not, women who said they couldn't breastfeed were likely dealing with breastfeeding management issues that could be corrected with the proper information and support.

IGT is still a little-known condition. Forbes asks, "How can it be that…all pediatricians and ob/gyns, who are routinely trained to spot conditions far rarer than IGT, are not being educated on the tell-tale warning signs of insufficient glandular tissue? … Why are hospitals and medical professionals not setting up a routine protocol, like the American Academy of Pediatrics urged for newborn screening, so that those women [whose breasts exhibit signs of IGT] are monitored in the critical early postpartum phase and are supported to maximize their breastfeeding potential?" (See "The Risk of Invalidating Moms Who Say They Can't Breastfeed". An article by Nancy M. Hurst in the Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health argued for just such a protocol for lactation assessment during pregnancy. (See "Recognizing and Treating Delayed or Failed Lactogenesis II".) Hurst advocates for pregnancy caregivers to routinely discuss the potential impact of breast shape, previous surgeries, minimal breast enlargement during puberty and pregnancy, and difficult previous breastfeeding experiences on future attempts at breastfeeding.

One of the several lactation consultants I saw during the first days after Ellis was born expressed hesitation about telling me of the possibility - based on my physical presentation - that I might have IGT. I can understand the desire to avoid instilling doubt into a mother's view of her ability to breastfeed - especially since, for most women, such doubts are unfounded - but I believe that such self-censorship is misguided in this instance. Advance education about the reality that I was up against would only have been beneficial in my case - sparing me the shock and heartache that permeated the first days that I shared with my newborn son. Had I been prepared with knowledge of this possibility and armed with best practices to maximize my personal breastfeeding potential, I am certain that my transition to motherhood would have been less turbulent.

And I am not alone in this mentality. In fact, it is remarkable how similarly and traumatically most women experience their diagnosis of IGT. Jacqueline from Michigan writes on the website "Not Everyone Can Breastfeed" the steps she would have taken differently had she received such a consultation during her pregnancy: renting rather than buying a $300 breast pump; keeping receipts for nursing supplies; and, "most importantly," preparing mentally for the possibility that exclusive breastfeeding might not be an option. She points out that while this problem is rare, "they tell you about very rare pregnancy conditions and L&D [labor & delivery] complications 'just in case', why shouldn't they warn women of this issue?"

The financial piece is especially noteworthy considering the cold reality of the costs of baby formula. "The Simple Dollar" estimates that formula feeding a baby an average 9,125 ounces for the first year of life would cost approximately $1,733.75. Considering this figure in terms of my graduate student stipend, along with the dawning realization of how many hours I would now need to spend washing bottles by hand while juggling motherhood with writing a PhD dissertation, contributed to my early emotional upheaval.

And that figure does not include the potential health costs of formula. Breastfeeding for six months or more has been correlated to a decreased incidence of breast cancer in women. And even organic formula - imbued as it is with capitalist market influences - prompts very real safety and ethical concerns. Since human milk contains the carbohydrate lactose in higher quantities than in cow's milk, formula manufacturers originally added lactose to their recipes. Lactose is, however, the most expensive variant of carbohydrate sweetener. As such, some manufacturers began switching to plant-based sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup. In order to compete for market share, most other formula companies followed suit.

Another troubling anecdote involves the incorporation of DHA and ARA, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both are found in human milk, and DHA is an important component in brain and eye tissue. But the author of "How To Find the Safest Organic Infant Formula" points out that the DHA and ARA added to most brands of infant formula are not the same as the DHA and ARA in breastmilk. The formula ingredients are extracted with the neurotoxic, petroleum-based solvent hexane from factory-produced strains of algae and fungus that have never been part of the human diet.

In light of the dearth of research suggesting any positive role for these ingredients, and with mounting evidence to the contrary, an article from Infact Canada writes: "Martek Biosciences Corporation, the company that supplies almost all formula companies with DHA/ARA, has admitted that the purpose of the additives is not to encourage healthy development, but to be used as a marketing tool. In its promotional material to encourage investment, Martek stated: 'Infant formula is currently a commodity market, with all products being almost identical and marketers competing intensely to differentiate their product. Even if [DHA/ARA] has no benefit, we think it would be widely incorporated into formulas, as a marketing tool and to allow companies to promote their formula as 'closest to human milk.'" (See: "Breastmilk Cannot Be Imitated - The DHA/ARA Fallout and Oligosaccharides". These are only a few noteworthy examples from a long list of similar concerns.

It is worth noting here that the actual milk production in women with IGT can vary widely, with proportional variations in the levels of supplementation. I'm at the lower (but not lowest) end of the spectrum - able to produce only about 10% of my baby's daily needs. By contrast, some other women can produce most of their babies' needs, only needing to supplement with a bottle or two each day. Additionally, after the "hormone bath" of pregnancy and childbirth, milk production tends to increase with every subsequent pregnancy. Although I will likely never be able to exclusively breastfeed, that 10% might increase to 20% should I have another child in the future.

After I began sharing my diagnosis with others, a few people suggested that I consider getting donated human breastmilk from a human milk bank. I had actually learned about milk banks while I was pregnant, during my process of researching breastfeeding and  the benefits of breastmilk. I had - ironically, in retrospect - looked into the process of donating and considered donating breastmilk myself, at a time when I thought I would be able to breastfeed normally.

But, now that I was on the other side of the potential donor-recipient relationship, there were several reasons why milk banks were not an option for us. Purchasing milk from a nonprofit milk bank costs about $5 an ounce, which - using the same 9,125-ounce volume estimate as used for formula above (with the caveat that breastmilk and formula intakes are not identical) - would cost about $45,625 a year. Despite the nonprofit status, that price tag incorporates the costs of processing and screening milk for infections like HIV, hepatitis B, and syphilis. That cost is several times more money than I make over an entire year. As an additional barrier, milk banks have limited resources, and they prioritize the milk for preemie babies and babies with impaired immune or digestive systems. It is unlikely that I would be able to access the milk even if I had an unlimited checkbook.

According to a joint statement by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), "The best food for a baby who cannot be breastfed is milk expressed from the mother's breast or from another healthy mother. … Where it is not possible to breastfeed, the first alternative, if available, should be the use of human milk from other sources."     What I did not realize from my own pregnancy research was that "other sources" extended beyond the formal network of milk banks - although the WHO/UNICEF guidelines would not condone the alternatives. As I mulled over the seeming finality of my IGT diagnosis with one of the lactation consultants and prepared to leave for home in tears, she suggested that I consider something I had never dreamed of existing: peer-to-peer community milksharing.

I blinked. Milksharing?

The lactation consultant explained that it would be possible to connect with mothers in the community who produced more milk than they needed for their own babies, and who might be willing to donate their excess to a baby in need. She mentioned a network of pages on Facebook that facilitated such connections, but suggested I start by posting a message on the Facebook group for the local breastfeeding support group that I had visited while I was pregnant.

We were somewhat skeptical at first. How could we trust random, unknown people to be knowledgeable and honest about their habits and health? Wouldn't this be putting our baby at an unacceptable risk of illness, infection, and exposure to pharmaceuticals? Wouldn't formula - whose ingredients were transparent and consistent - be the more responsible decision?

We spent a few days contemplating this unexpected suggestion. Eventually we decided that posting a tentative call out to the community would at least enable us to consider our options. We could - if we didn't feel comfortable with an offer - say thanks, but no thanks. We weren't committing to anything by asking.

I posted the following message on 6/29: "Hello [group]! My boy Ellis was born at the Birth Center on 6/19. After a very challenging first week with Ellis losing over a pound of his birth weight, we made the difficult discovery that I don't have the anatomy to breastfeed. I am pumping throughout the day with yields of just a few mL at a time, which we are adding to his formula (which he currently takes at about 90 mL per feeding). [Our lactation consultant] suggested that I post here to see if anyone might be interested in donating some breastmilk to further supplement his diet in these early days. I live in the University City area of West Philadelphia. Please let me know if you might be interested - Thank you!"

To my surprise and delight, we were immediately greeted with no fewer than 7 offers of breastmilk. One came from a surrogate mother who had just given birth the day before to a baby who would be living far away and would not need her milk. Many of the mothers who responded to my post offered to deliver bags of frozen breastmilk directly to my house without asking for anything in return.

Suddenly I was crying again, but this time from gratitude in place of despair.

They also directed me to the Facebook pages for the global networks "Human Milk 4 Human Babies" (HM4HB) and "Eats on Feets" (EOF). Both organizations maintain pages for every US state and many countries around the world for the purpose of connecting milk donors with recipients. Volunteer staffers "retweet" - to those who follow the page - posts by individuals who have milk to share and families in search of donor milk. Both HM4HB and EOF also serve as resources for informed milksharing, advocating best practices that include honest communication about health and lifestyle, safe handling, and education of risks and benefits. The sale of breastmilk through these organizations is expressly forbidden. Recipients often express their gratitude in other ways, such as by replacing milk storage bags.

There is an irreducible element of trust inherent to community milksharing. Without the elaborate screening mechanisms available to milk banks, the possibility of infection through tainted milk is a real though unlikely concern. Since breastmilk in this context is exchanged without financial motive, there is no overt reason for donors to lie about their health.

The same cannot be said for the sale of breastmilk through Craigslist-like online marketplaces such as Onlythebreast.com. Breastmilk is legal to sell in most states because it is considered a food rather than a drug or body part by the FDA, but the FDA does recommend against buying unscreened milk on the open market. There are, however, some ethical issues to selling breastmilk. There can be an incentive to dishonesty about health issues when financial profit is involved, and there is concern about the potential for people to "cut" breastmilk with cow's milk in order to sell it for more, ounce by ounce. (See "The Ethics of Selling Pumped Breastmilk".)

In an effort to investigate milksharing's potential harms, the 2013 World Milksharing Week committee recently unveiled MIDAS, the Milksharing Incident Database & Survey. According to its website, MIDAS is a grassroots public health program consisting of an adverse incident reporting system (for incidents both medical and social) and a permanent survey of milksharing families and their advocates. This will likely serve as an invaluable resource on the safety of community milksharing in the years to come.

When our first donations of breastmilk came through, I fully expected to just have enough milk for Ellis's first few weeks of life. At the time of this writing, Ellis is 3 months old, and thanks to the selfless donations from 19 mothers (to date), we have never had to give him formula since we first looked into milksharing.

As meaningful as milksharing has been, I should mention some of the ways in which it is not ideal. Most milk donations are exchanged in plastic, specialized breastmilk storage bags that cannot be reused. There are a few ways to work around this environmental limitation, however. These plastic bags are recyclable in some, but not all, municipalities, offering a means to divert them from landfills. Further, in some cases, milksharing relationships can be established where donors and recipients maintain an ongoing exchange rather than a single-time donation. In such cases, it is possible to use reusable containers that can be sterilized, returned, and refilled in succession. Another limitation is the fossil fuels committed to transporting milk from donors. Recipients have been known to travel hundreds of miles to pick up larger donations, or else to ship boxes of frozen milk in trucks or on planes across the country and around the world.

There are also considerations relating to the composition of breastmilk, aspects of which I touched on previously. Milk evolves over time to match the changing needs of the baby for whom it is produced, but the age of the donor baby does not usually synch up perfectly with the age of the recipient baby. Additionally, breastmilk has been shown to fluctuate daily according to a circadian rhythm.

A 2009 study published in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience demonstrates that the quantity of sleep-inducing nucleotides in breastmilk peaks between the hours of 8 PM to 8 AM, suggesting a role in regulating infant sleep and wakefulness. The researchers extrapolate that for correct nutrition, expressed breastmilk should be given to babies at the same time of day that it was originally produced: "You wouldn't give anyone a coffee at night, and the same is true of milk - it has day-specific ingredients that stimulate activity in the infant, and other night-time components that help the baby to rest." (See "Breast Milk Should Be Drunk At The Same Time of Day That It Is Expressed".) But it is not especially common, in my experience, for donor milk to be labeled with the requisite information. That said, I should note that Ellis has been a fantastic sleeper from the start, and there are likely many additional factors involved in establishing sleeping patterns. All considered, breastmilk is still the gold standard when compared to the alternatives for infant nutrition.

It is through an understanding of this value that many donors gift their breastmilk to families in need. One mother explains of donating, "I felt like it was something that my daughter and I were doing together, and it will always be the very first community service project we ever participated in together." (See "Life-Saving Milk: Baby's First Volunteer Project". The business of feeding babies is a feel-good mission all around.

Further, the strength of the interpersonal connections that arise from milksharing can last a lifetime - long beyond when the babies are weaned. Peer-to-peer breastmilk donations are intimate occasions that can be as meaningful for donors as they are for recipients. Several exchanges from my own experience are illustrative. In one instance, I met in a church parking lot with the aunt of a donor mother who had just moved to Florida. That mother had needed donor milk for one of her older children, and it was a special privilege to now be able to donate milk in turn. In another instance, a mother had been creating a freezer stockpile of milk for months, only to discover that her defrosted milk had a soapy smell indicative of high lipase, an enzyme that helps break down milk fat. Although there are no health concerns with high-lipase milk, some babies don't like the taste and will refuse to drink it from a bottle. This mother was devastated at the thought that all the work of collecting that milk was for nothing, until she discovered that she could donate it to another baby in need. When I arrived at her house with a cooler and ice packs, I teared up as I explained to her how much it meant to be able to give Ellis breastmilk. To my surprise, the donor mother was equally emotional as she explained the background to her donation and expressed her happiness in being able to help my son to flourish.

Over the course of my acquaintance with milksharing, I have noted 5 distinct types of milk donations, all of which are equally precious. The first are from people who pump in case they need the milk (if they're going back to work, for example, or as a stockpile for a rainy day) but then end up not needing it. The second are from people who discover that their children have developed an allergy to something in their diet, so they can no longer use the milk themselves. The third are from people whose babies refused milk from the bottle (for reasons including a preference for the breast or distaste for frozen milk). The fourth are from people who are traveling on vacation and don't want to ship the milk back home. And the fifth, finally, are from people who pump for the express purpose of donating.

I will end this essay by recounting an exchange I had with a donor of the fifth variety, since it exemplifies in many ways the power of milksharing to connect and transform lives.

In response to a request that I had left on the "Human Milk 4 Human Babies - New Jersey" Facebook page, I was contacted through a private message by Cristin F. She explained that she was brand new to donating and would be building up a freezer stash over time. We agreed to keep in touch, and she told me that she would contact me once she had a good amount stored up.

I next heard from Cristin a few weeks later in unexpected circumstances. She explained that she had just donated milk for the first time to another mother, to whom she had promised milk before me. She wrote that the exchange didn't go as planned. The mother was an hour late; barely said thank you; didn't give replacement bags, even though she had promised them; and told her how glad she was not to be pumping anymore. After giving away 5 hours worth of time - pumping for her babies when she would not - Cristin left the experience feeling dejected and used. She wrote me: "I guess I'm trying to share the experience so that the negative I experienced can turn into a positive moving forward for other people, that as a new mommy meeting donors you can be sensitive to making sure the donors feel appreciated. (Not that you wouldn't, but I'm trying to turn this frown upside down for myself!)"

I was really affected by her letter. I felt terrible that her first experience donating had left her with such a bad feeling, especially since my own experiences had been so unambiguously positive. I responded:

"My own interactions with milk donors couldn't be farther away from that picture. I always offer bags and try to bring something in thanks, like a nice bar of chocolate. Every meeting I've had has been an incredible, heartwarming, life-affirming experience. Every single donor I've met has been so unbelievably kind and compassionate. I've cried a few times while explaining how grateful my family and I are for their kindness. It has completely uplifted my view of humanity to see all these strangers approach me with such warmth, giving the gift of life to my baby out of a sense of love and the desire to help, without asking for compensation in return. I can't stress how transformational an experience it has been for me, both in my general outlook and in coming to terms with my hypoplasia/IGT."

I told her about my story and how I had come to seek donor milk. And I explained that, at 7 weeks postpartum, I was still pumping throughout the day (every few hours, even in the middle of the night) for my 3-4 daily ounces - enough for one bottle. I felt that since our donor mothers were putting so much time and care into every ounce we received, I wanted to do as much as I could myself. I also described how I was keeping a list of every person who had given us milk. It was my intent, I explained, to send everyone a card or letter with a picture of Ellis when he's older, to thank them for helping him grow into the boy he is.

She responded: "You made me cry. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with me. I sat here this afternoon feeling blue and wondering if maybe the goodness I see out in the world - especially with something as intimate as milksharing - was a bit naïve of me. Maybe this mom was using me as a way to save money on formula. (Something I hadn't considered before.) And I felt bad for feeling bad - geesh, was I expecting a gold star or something? Your words made me realize that I had been seeking out exactly the experience(s) you have had  - that life affirming, beautiful, truly personal sharing experience. I didn't even realize that I was seeking it, or that it would mean so much to me. Also, thank you for validating my feelings - that you thought the situation was odd, too. It helps to put this in perspective - that it was a one time occurrence with one mom and it's not indicative of the milksharing culture as a whole. I look forward to pumping for you, helping you and Ellis in the small way that I can."

Cristin and I bonded through our mutual exchange, and I can tell that I have made a good friend for many years to come. Her negative experience paradoxically allowed for us to have that personal, sharing experience that we both sought. We have kept in touch since then, and will continue to so. She recently wrote of her son: "Steven has been watching me pump and store the milk. I have him carry it down to the basement with me and I tell him that it's mommy milk for Ellis, and that we are helping Ellis and his mommy."

In my few months in the milksharing world, I have witnessed incredible acts of love and selflessness: communities rallying to collect donations for a family whose mother died in childbirth; mothers of stillborn babies pumping to donate in their children's memories; friends driving friends many miles to pick up donations on weekends; mothers waking up to pump at 4 AM for a stranger's baby. Milksharing has been personally healing to the point that it makes my struggle with breastfeeding completely worth it. It is because of my IGT that I was exposed to this beautiful side of humanity, which gives me hope in our collective ability to support one another and grow into a more compassionate, conscious, and gentle future.

For my part, I continued trying to nurse Ellis from time to time after he started with his bottles. At 6 weeks old, he suddenly latched like a pro, as if he'd always been doing it. Now we nurse every day. Even though he doesn't get most of his nutrition from me, I'm grateful that we are still able to share that special relationship. I'm grateful that 19 mothers and counting have allowed my son to thrive on breastmilk. And for all its shortfalls, I will never forget the integral role that Facebook played in feeding my baby.

I hope that this essay gives back, in some small way, by spreading awareness of this beautiful cause.

Namaste.

 

Teaser image by Bliss baby charity, courtesy of Creative Commons license.