I had waited a lifetime to share the bond of breastfeeding with my baby. It’s what I had most looked forward to when imagining that special newborn time. But, when my daughter was born she was instantly shuffled to the NICU. Tubes, wires, and resuscitations happened swiftly and without warning. It was unclear to the team of doctors, nurses and specialists why she wasn’t recovering from her delivery as any other baby would.
For two weeks we had zero answers and in the meantime, we hoped for the best and prepared for her to come home. We sat bedside all day, only leaving to sleep and occasionally eat. We maximized our time by telling her stories, singing songs, reading children’s books, taking pictures, changing diapers and for me specifically, pumping. I approached pumping as the most serious job, it was the only thing I could do to help her at that moment and I did so with pride. I knew that when she was released from the hospital my breastmilk would help nourish her and I wanted to be ready.
However, that day would never arrive.
At 13 days old, we learned our daughter would not be coming home. She could not survive off life support. My heart broke in a million pieces and for an obvious million reasons.
Also, I was told my breast milk was not needed.
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It may come as a shock to many grieving moms, as it did to me, that it is likely their milk will come in (or continue producing) even after their baby has died. One of Mother Nature’s cruelest jokes is for the broken-hearted mother to create life-sustaining breastmilk when there is no life to sustain.
I so badly wanted something good to come from all the milk that I had pumped and searched for any and all options. I had never before considered needing use for my milk other than to feed my daughter so the task of researching options felt overwhelmingly devastating. I asked the lactation consultant about donating to a milk bank. I looked into donating personally to another NICU mom. I asked my OB about ceasing lactation. It was the greatest heartbreak having to decide what to do with milk that I continued to produce without a baby to feed. This isn’t a choice any mom wants to make when the only acceptable option involves feeding our own baby, but in the midst of chaos doing research can feel overwhelming. So to support other moms in their quest for decision-making, here is info for both milk donation and suppression:
Suppressing Milk: Many moms have found that they would rather suppress milk as soon as possible. That the thought of continuing to produce milk without a baby to feed can feel horrifying. In that case, a doctor, nurse and/or lactation consultant can help guide you through this process. It can take several days, even up to a week or more. You may notice that your breasts become engorged with milk, which can be quite painful. Here are some ideas to manage pain as you reduce your milk supply:
- Avoid allowing warmth near your breasts as it will encourage milk to release.
- Wear a fitted sports bra to support your breasts.
- Insert flexible ice packs or cold cabbage leaves in the bra.
- If you find engorgement is occurring, hand express or pump only long enough to relieve the pressure and build up.
- Moist warmth, such as a shower or wet washcloth, can help soften the breast to release milk.
- Ibuprofen can be taken for pain.
- Drink ample amounts of fluids to remain hydrated while your body is working to heal itself.
- Certain teas or essential oils (such as sage and peppermint) can help reduce milk production.
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Donating Milk: Some moms find that the idea of allowing another baby to thrive from their baby’s milk to be a beautiful gift. Those who choose to continue milk production can donate to a milk bank or a private recipient (check local laws). Both milk banks and milk sharing have requirements and guidelines so be sure to know them before saving your milk. While following the set expectations, you will create your own schedule of pumping to encourage continued milk production. Here are some tips for successful pumping:
- Relax, breathe, be present.
- Stay hydrated.
- Keep a regular pumping schedule so your body knows to create milk.
- Pump when you wake in the morning as production is typically highest upon waking.
- Think of your baby. Visualization of your baby can assist with “let down”.
- Alternatively, do NOT think of your baby. Some moms find that doing so heightens stress related grief and can inhibit milk production.
- Products containing galactagogues (such as fenugreek, milk thistle, brewer’s yeast) can encourage lactation.
- Store your milk in appropriate bags or containers and be sure to label them immediately.
- Keep milk in a deep freezer or in the back of a kitchen freezer where the temperature is coldest.
Regardless of what option you choose, to donate or suppress your milk, it is the right choice. There is no right answer in a situation such as this where everything is so, so wrong. The only thing you need to consider is that which will be least painful with the most potential for healing of your broken heart.
**This article is not medical advice. Always check with a medical professional before using any type of pain-relieving medicines or alternative treatments for ceasing lactation or encouraging milk production.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash