Donating Breast Milk
by Elizabeth Poppe
In the first weeks of my young son’s life you could track our daily progress around our apartment by the drops of breast milk everywhere: around the bed, on the floor by the change table, through the hall leading to the bathroom (where the spray across the shower curtain was positively Hitchcockian), on into the kitchen, and ending in a little puddle by the rocking chair where I most often nursed. Those drops didn’t just quickly wipe up. Oh no. I needed to get down on my hands and knees and SCRUB them out! And what new mama has time for that? What a mess… and what a waste. So I decided to donate my excess breast milk to the Milk Bank.
I first heard about donating breast milk in my prenatal class. When my son was two months old, I unearthed a brochure I had picked up at Mothering Touch and contacted the Milk Bank at the BC Women’s Hospital in Vancouver, the only one of its kind in Canada. A Milk Bank collects, screens, pasteurizes, and distributes donated breast milk. The BC Women’s Milk Bank has been in operation for over 30 years, providing donor milk to high-risk and ill children when their mothers are not able to provide enough breast milk. Donors are healthy, non-smoking mothers of babies under one year old who have more milk than their own baby needs. Potential donors must also pass a screening process involving verbal and written questionnaires, and they must undergo blood tests and receive a clean bill of health from a doctor or midwife.
At first, it sounded rather daunting to me, but then, so did mopping the floor twice a day. I resolved to make the commitment… and then very nearly gave up before I had truly started. My initial phone call wasn’t returned until four weeks later. Had I forgotten to leave a call back number? It was definitely something I might forget as I adjusted to my son’s feeding schedule and the joys of new parenthood. But, as usual, patience is rewarded. It turns out the lactation consultants run the Milk Bank essentially in their down time and you can imagine how little of that a busy nurse has.
The call came one afternoon as I was nursing my three-month-old son (how appropriate, I thought). I was questioned about my general health by a friendly nurse with a lovely British accent. Did I smoke? What medications, if any, did I take and why? She instructed me on proper storage of my expressed milk: how to store each collection separately in a food-grade container—I bought bags specifically designed to store breast milk—and to not pump for the Milk Bank within 12 hours of consuming an alcoholic beverage. I was to call again when I had 75 to 100 ounces (about three litres) of breast milk frozen and ready to donate.
On a good day I was able to pump four ounces. Other days I only managed one or two. There was one memorable day when I was able to collect eight ounces! Even so, it took me about three months to store 100 ounces. I was promptly mailed an information package which included the detailed health questionnaire, similar to what you would fill out if you were donating blood. I mailed it back and a nurse called to clarify a couple of my answers. Next up, my family doctor was consulted about my overall health and ability to donate, and blood work was requisitioned (my by now six-month-old sat like a dream on my lap while I had the blood drawn). A week or so later, another call from the Milk Bank with the all clear and I was officially a donor.
The tricky part for us Islanders is getting the frozen milk over to Vancouver. A group called Breast Feeding Matters - South Vancouver Island proved indispensable in this regard, providing a Styrofoam cooler, ice packs, and valuable information about shipping and couriers. The website has an excellent PowerPoint presentation on how to pack your milk so it stays frozen for the overnight trip by truck and ferry. They also covered the cost of shipping, a pleasant surprise.
So, my milk has been shipped and my freezer is once again empty. I feel a little like I suspect I will feel when my son is grown and heading out into the world for the first time—nervous. Had I packed it correctly? Would it stay frozen for the trip? But I was proud of what I had accomplished.
For more information check out www.bcwomens.ca
. To become a donor call the BC Women’s Milk Bank at 604-875-2282.Elizabeth Poppe is mama to seven-month-old Nicolas. She is learning to live with spilt milk.