Milk Sharing: The Modern Day Wet Nurse

by Asheya on September 14, 2011

What did women used to do in the days before artificial baby milk, when their babies needed milk they couldn’t provide?  Milk share!  Women have been networking long before the internet!  Most people have heard of ‘wet nurses,’ women who were paid money to breastfeed another woman’s baby.  These wet nurses were generally from lower income families, nursing babies from wealthy families.  But there were also countless times when women were ill or traveling without their babies, or unable to provide adequate amounts of milk, when sisters, neighbours, and good friends would step in to nurse each other’s babies.  This tradition continues today.
You likely remember the story of my friends Melissa and Geoff who gave birth in July to baby Brayden.  Melissa is one of my best friends, and I was her doula.  Since my name is also Melissa, hopefully this post won’t be too confusing.  To help I will refer to Melissa as Melissa K, and to myself in the first person.
I had my fourth baby on March 1st.  I am currently nursing her nearly exclusively; I say ‘nearly’ since she just started eating solid food last week, and I also nurse her three year old brother two to three times per day.  Tandem nursing is not something I’ve done before but it is working out well.  Breastmilk capacity is based upon supply and demand; what a child or children demand, a woman’s body will supply.  Thus, I have enough milk for both my children. 
Little Amarys, getting into trouble

Nursing my three year old

 I tend to struggle with oversupply, although this time around I have managed my supply well enough to have few of the problems associated with producing too much milk.  People often comment that I’m fortunate to have oversupply, and I would rather have too much than too little milk, but an over abundant supply of milk carries problems and difficulties which can be quite challenging.  But, on the bright side, having abundant milk means I was able to donate hundreds of ounces of milk to the breastmilk bank at BC Women’s Hospital in 2003, provide my adopted son with 14 months worth of pumped breastmilk, and now, to tandem nurse my baby and my toddler.  It also helped me when Melissa K. texted me three weeks after Brayden was born to say that he was not yet at his birth weight, had gained only 1.5 ounces in the previous week, and did I have any tips?  She was being strongly advised to supplement by her midwife.  She didn’t want to use formula but was also very worried about Brayden’s minimal weight gain.
Yikes!  1.5 ounces in one week?!  This baby needed milk, and he needed it today.  In all of Canada there is only one human milk bank and the milk there is designated for sick NICU babies who need all they can get, so banked human milk was not an option.  I texted her, “You can always use donor milk.”  There is an organization I had read about called Human Milk For Human Babies, which facilitates woman to woman milk sharing all over the world.  I also know several women who have shared milk when babies are in need, including Amy from Anktangle who provided my friend Rachel from Clearly Speaking with pumped supplemental milk for six months when Rachel struggled to provide a full supply for her son Bennett.  I also follow Cinco De Mommy, who uses donor milk from a handful of friends to provide breastmilk for her fifth baby who was born after a breast reduction.  I offered that since we are close friends and I live nearby, Melissa K. could use some of my milk as a supplement.  She and Geoff jumped with joy at the idea of using donated milk rather than use formula.  I drove over that night to drop off eleven ounces of pumped milk that I happened to have in my freezer, and sat down and made a plan with them in order to help Melissa K get her milk supply back up to as full a capacity as possible.  Dr. Jack Newman is an excellent resource on increasing milk supply.  
In the case of very slow weight gain in a newborn baby, particularly not returning to birth weight by three weeks of age (which is bordering on the failure to thrive category), it is important to address the problem by separating it into three separate issues: first, feed the baby.  Second, work to increase milk supply.  Third, teach the baby to breastfeed.  Melissa K and Geoff decided to use my milk to supplement what Melissa was making, addressing “feed the baby.”  They rented a good quality pump and Melissa started taking herbal and prescription galactogogues to address “increasing milk supply.”  A visit with a lactation consultant revealed ways to improve Brayden’s latch so he could drain the breast more fully.
For the past five weeks, Geoff comes by my house at 8:30 every morning, Tuesday through Friday.  I pump several ounces before I go to bed, and several more in the morning when I wake up, and I leave the milk out on my front stoop with some ice for him to pick up.  Tuesdays I have three or four bags for him, stockpiled over the weekend, and Brayden happily drinks it up.
Sometimes while I’m pumping, Amarys gets hungry…

My three sons are fascinated by my pump, and the resulting milk
which is nicknamed “Brayden’s milkies”

Milk on the stoop

Human milk sharing isn’t for everyone.  Some parents are more comfortable using formula rather than live milk from a donor [some would likely prefer pasteurized human milk from a milk bank, which is of course not available in Canada, although it is possible to purchase human milk from some U.S. milk banks who ship to Canada for approximately $3 to $5 per ounce].  But others prefer the benefits of live human milk, and the age old tradition of milk sharing is making a comeback.  Melissa K and Geoff have recieved donor milk from another friend as well, particularly when I go out of town for several days, or experience dips in my supply.

Brayden, 4 weeks old and well past his birth weight

Since working intensely hard to increase her supply, after five weeks Melissa K has been able to provide most of what Brayden needs, and supplements in the afternoons and evenings with donated milk.  She still pumps numerous times throughout the day and takes herbs and prescription medication to keep her supply up.  For the first few weeks she supplemented with my milk after every feed, but now after five weeks she is able to provide most of what he needs, and I just fill in the gaps.  Last week he weighed in at 9 pounds, 8 ounces, with cute chubby cheeks to prove it.

Hunk-a-chunk cheeks

He’s such a happy go lucky guy.  Isn’t he cute?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Desiree Fawn September 14, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Awe, that milky baby is such a sweetheart! Good for you mama!


Chelsea September 16, 2011 at 7:53 am

Awe, my son was exclusively fed from donated breast milk for he first 8 months of his life! Milk sharing is dear to my heart and I pray that my next baby, I will have lots of milk to provide not only mine but someone else's too.


M.Kullman September 17, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Thank you Melissa for that wonderful post and all those bags of milkies you've provided for us! We will forever be grateful to you for helping save Brayden and my sanity!


melissa September 18, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Thank you, guys! And Melissa, you are forever welcome. I love you guys, and that little Brayden as if he were my nephew. xoxo


Rachel Clear @ Clearly Speaking September 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I will also be forever indebted to Amy and the whole milk-sharing openness that happens in my city. I am so lucky that Bennett's pediatrician also encouraged us to milk-share, as well as many family members and friends. That made it so much easier to do. And having a friend like Amy with an over-supply was just perfect. I said many thanks every time I picked up that blessed mama milk. I hope that with my next baby, I can return the favor for someone else (assuming I don't have the same low supply I initially had with Bennett). What a great way to literally give life, one bag at a time!


Anonymous November 14, 2011 at 12:23 am

Please know that Human Milk 4 Human Babies is not the formerly Eats On Feets! Please correct that information. Eat On Feets is alive and well. Find them on Facebook!


melissa November 15, 2011 at 1:53 am

Thanks for letting us know about the EOF/HM4HB situation. Will be corrected ASAP!


bhn July 26, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Great article! I just wanted to note that there are at least two human milk banks in Canada where parents can access pasteurized human milk. It is prioritized to the smallest and sickest babies, but it does exist. Vancouver & Calgary. And I think Montreal’s next in line. :)


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