A Dad Shares His Family's Experience With Donor Milk
Stephen Stratton writes about the importance of donor milk to his parenting experience as a trans dad
Birdie just turned 18 months old. She only gets milk at night time now, before bed while we snuggle on the couch in her room and talk about her day. She loves her milk and as soon as we start to pick out pajamas and books, she starts to ask (again and again and again) for her "milk-milk."
To commemorate her turning 18 months (I am overly sentimental), instead of giving her the combo of goat's milk and almond milk that she had been getting for the last few weeks, I thawed the very last bag of breast milk from the freezer for her night time bottle. While neither myself or my partner can lactate, we were able to feed Birdie donated breast milk for her first year and a half of life.
While Josh and I knew the health benefits of feeding breast milk to infants, we did not set out to feed Birdie human milk. As two dads who are unable to produce milk ourselves, we assumed our only real option was to give her formula. (For the record, I have absolutely nothing against anyone who has to or chooses to feed their baby formula for any reason.) But shortly after Birdie was born we learned that she was none too pleased about formula. She didn't drink much of it, she spit up half of what she did drink, and it made her gassy and irritable.
We had a small, frozen stash of breast milk donated to us by a friend of a friend that we had planned on giving her sporadically in addition to formula. But after Birdie's first bottle of breast milk, she was hooked. We saw the difference in how easily her body digested the human milk; she wasn't gassy or spitting up and she was eating and sleeping well. So we committed to trying to find more donor milk for her first few months of life, at least until her digestive system caught up and we could give formula a try again.
We were successful and for Birdie's first three months we were able to feed her donated breast milk exclusively. In the months that followed, she grew bigger and her appetite did too. We didn't have enough breast milk to keep up with her demands for more milk so we reintroduced formula and she ate a combination of formula and donor milk.
As Birdie reached the year mark we had stopped actively seeking out donors, as we were able to feed her other kinds of milk and a variety of healthy foods to meet her nutritional needs. We also felt like there were smaller, newer babies in the world who needed donor milk more than our strong and healthy toddler. But one of our repeat donors offered to continue donating to us as long as she was pumping milk for her own son (and additionally she was also donating milk to babies in the NICU). With the generosity of strangers and friends, what started as a hope that we could kick start our baby's first couple of months with the powerful nutrients and antibodies through donor milk lasted a year and a half.
Before Birdie, I didn't know much about milk sharing. I knew that hospitals had milk banks for preemies, I knew that throughout history and in other cultures nursing someone else's baby was not uncommon, and I had friends who had fed their adopted sons donor milk, but my knowledge pretty much ended there.
I didn't know that through milk sharing we would add to our already abundant community of people who want to support and help care for our family. We reached out to our friends who were new moms and they reached out to their lactation and breastfeeding support circles on our behalf. We connected with a group on Facebook called "Human Milk 4 Human Babies," shared our family story, and connected with nursing moms who had more milk than they needed and were willing to share. I don't know how many individuals donated milk to us, but I know we are grateful for every ounce of milk we received. Most donations were a one time deal, someone had pumped more milk than they would ever use, or a baby developed an allergy to dairy and couldn't drink their mother's already pumped and frozen milk. Some of milk came from repeat donors, moms who pumped milk specifically for us, those donors we got to know, met for coffee, Birdie got to have playdates with their babies. Every bag of milk was a donation, no money exchanged hands. These moms - some of whom we had never met before - did this for us out of sheer kindness.
As part of my medical transition, long before I ever knew carrying Birdie would even be a possibility, I had top surgery. For me, that meant an elective double mastectomy and chest reconstruction which resulted in a flat, masculine chest. I do not have any regrets about the decision to have top surgery because of how it not only improved my quality of life immensely, but also because I cannot imagine having been pregnant as a transgender man and also have a chest swollen with milk. (Others have done it, and I commend them for it.)
Just after Birdie was born, when the post-partum hormones really began to kick in, I started dreaming about nursing Birdie. Though the milk had nowhere to go, a small amount came in after she was born and when she would cry or lay skin to skin on my chest it would ache and swell and she would root for it. It absolutely broke my heart. My body wanted to feed her and it couldn't, she wanted human milk and I couldn't give it to her. After caring for her and nourishing her with my body for nine months, I felt terrible for not being able to give her what she needed.
But the truth is there is no way to know if I hadn't had surgery that we would have been able to have a successful nursing relationship. Plenty of cisgender women in my life had children they were not able to feed because their milk supply didn't come in, or it dried up and never came back, or it was too hard, or their baby had allergies.
I know that good parents feed their babies formula, good parents nurse their babies, good parents do a combo of both, good parents use donor milk; we all do what we can do to make sure our children are nourished.
No matter how much I wished I could have, I couldn't nurse Birdie. But I still could give her what she needed by connecting with milk donors, by driving sometimes more than an hour away to pick up milk, by rearranging our freezer countless time to make room for more milk, by counting ounces and thawing the right amount for her daily bottles so none would go to waste, by getting up bleary-eyed in the middle of the night to measure and warm milk in a bottle to give to our daughter. I held my new baby in my arms, snuggled her close and whispered to her as we stared into each others eyes and her belly filled up with the precious gift of donor milk.