Medical Examiner

My Time as a Human Dairy Cow

As supply is down and demand is up, there’s a pressing need for more breast milk donors.

A curious cow looks at two breast milk pumps, and a few bags of breast milk.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Clara Bastian/iStock/Getty Images Plus and MonthiraYodtiwong/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

One social interaction I’ve never figured out how to pull off gracefully is handing someone two garbage bags full of my bodily fluids.

I used to do this regularly. When the doorbell rang, I would heft the bags—each holding many small pouches of breast milk, frozen solid—and carry them downstairs. Then I’d open the front door, praying the person standing there was the courier I was expecting, and not an unsuspecting Jehovah’s Witness.

Across the infancy and early toddlerhood of my two kids, I was a breast milk donor. I’m telling you this not because I want to seem like a good person (I’m an OK person, at best) but because it was honestly great.

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Nationwide, there’s a pressing need for more milk donors. Demand is up and supply is down, for what may be multiple pandemic-related reasons. But milk donation is less mainstream than blood donation, and a little weirder to mention to your friends. That means people may not know how easy and gratifying it can be. If you’re already pumping milk to feed your own baby, donating the excess can be like one of those “tap to clean!” Instagram stories—except beside fitting a second carton of ice cream in your freezer, you might also be saving lives.

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When a baby is born too early and too tiny and has to be hospitalized, it faces a host of dangers. One is called necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC. This is when the lining of the intestine dies. It’s often fatal for the baby. But studies have shown that when hospitalized preemies have breast milk, their risk of NEC plummets.

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The parents of these hospitalized babies, though, often have trouble producing milk. In addition to all the usual reasons—lactation is hard—they’re dealing with the stress of being in the NICU, and babies who may be too young to suck. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends donor milk for preemies who aren’t getting milk from a parent.

Donor milk comes to a hospital from a milk bank, which is kind of like a blood bank crossed with a dairy farm. Banks collect frozen milk from pumping parents who happen to have extra. Then the banks thaw the milk, pool it, pasteurize it, test it, refreeze it, and send it where it’s needed.

I learned about milk banks at the breastfeeding class I attended before having my first baby, from an instructor with a whisper-soft voice and a hand-knit boob for a prop. A few months after my daughter was born, while I was pumping to give her practice with bottles and build up a stash for childcare, I saw that my freezer was filling at an unsustainable rate. I sent an email to Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast. (You can find your closest bank here.)

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It was shortly after the 2016 election. The world seemed to have lurched and changed, and people were amassing in protest marches, but I was at home caring for someone whose hobbies were nursing every two hours and screaming. My husband and I hadn’t figured out a plan for getting the screamer into childcare and me back to work. In that moment, giving away my milk held the rare promise of making me feel useful outside the walls of my home.

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I went through a detailed screening over the phone, answering probing questions about my medical history while bouncing my daughter on the opposite hip (to forestall the screaming). The next step was a blood test, which was harder. The milk bank paid for the test, and helped arrange it. But since my doctor’s office wouldn’t ship the sample to the lab itself, I ended up walking home with three disconcertingly warm vials of my own blood.

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From there, though, it was simple. The bank took what was already in my freezer, and afterward I labeled every pouch I pumped with an ID number. I mailed some boxes of milk plastered with “KEEP FROZEN” penguin stickers, until the FedEx woman pointed out that they were only traveling three towns over. After that, I let the bank send a courier. Whenever I emailed to say I was ready, an air-conditioned car would park in front of my home to pick up the bags. (I never did fulfill my fear of handing the milk to the wrong person.)

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That’s not to say donating milk is easy—or possible—for everyone who breastfeeds. Some people are paragons of efficiency whose bodies don’t make a drop more than their own babies drink. I am not such a person. The first time I used a breast pump, I felt like I was turning on a faucet. Compounding matters, my daughter screamed even more than usual if anyone tried to give her a bottle. When we started sending her out of the house during the day, she simply refused to eat until she came home, then nursed nonstop until bedtime. Between pumping and nursing, my body got the impression that it was feeding roughly one and a half babies.

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My daughter did eventually deign to consume foods that didn’t come straight from my body. Once she was a toddler and only nursing a little bit each day, the faucet slowed down, and I stopped pumping. The bank mailed a certificate with both of our names and the total ounces I’d sent, which I pictured as rows of milk jugs in a grocery store case. When my second daughter was born two years later, I didn’t hesitate to contact the milk bank, and start the process once again.

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Now, after three electric pumps, many trash bags, and only a few tragic kitchen-counter spills, I finally quit pumping and donating a few months ago. My second toddler helped me gather up the final icy pouches. As a little ceremony to mark the occasion, I took a winding drive on a late-fall day to deliver the milk to the bank myself.

Someone opened the door to accept my haul. When I lingered, she asked if I wanted to come in. There wasn’t much to see. Past the front desk was a large window, behind which two technicians in hairnets were pouring milk into a vat. They looked up and waved. I returned to my car.

It was a little anticlimactic, if I’m being honest. But maybe that makes sense. Maybe feeding other people’s babies can be like feeding your own: satisfying, utterly essential, and ordinary.

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