It's called "liquid gold", and for good reason. Breastfeeding is an emotional journey for nearly every mother, both good and bad. But when a baby is born prematurely, sometimes the mother's body can't respond with milk production, a huge hurdle as that's the only food a premature baby's body needs.
In a special two part series, I have two emotional stories of love and loss, and how donated breast milk is helping save the lives of prematurely born babies. The first story is of Becky Brown and her daughter Parker, born three months premature.
"This is Parker. She's 9 months today," explains her proud mother Becky Brown. "I wanted her for a really long time. So after five rounds of in vitro fertilization we got our little miracle, who decided to come three months early at 27 weeks."
Parker Hope Brown was in the neonatal intensive care unit for 67 days. Becky spent every minute she could with her two pound baby, pumping around the clock to try and feed her breast milk, the only thing a prematurely baby's body can handle.
"So the breastfeeding journey, and everything that goes along with it, is a really emotional process," Becky said. "It is something that all I ever thought about, before I even had her, I was talking to lactation consultants when we were going through IVF, infertility, if it was going to be hard to breastfeed and produce milk. And we knew there might be a challenge there, especially with the fertility issues, but we were going to give it every fighting chance."
After 29 weeks of trying, Parker finally latched to her mother's breast. But by then Becky says it was too late, her milk supply was down to just a few drops.
"It was just- it was heartbreaking," Becky recalls. "It was heartbreaking that more milk wasn't coming and I was watching my supply drop. All I wanted to do was breastfeed. All I wanted her to have was breast milk. It was just so important to me. And I fought to get her breast milk."
They tried feeding Parker formula, but her body rejected it.
"Well when we talk about babies who are born early, pre-term babies, and babies who are born sick or who have birth defects, or birth anomalies, it's even more important for those babies to have breast milk," explains International Board Certified Lactation Consultant Christine Staricka of Baby Cafe, a local breastfeeding support group. "That's because human milk is made for human babies. So that helps them to develop normally, it helps their digestive system to develop and mainly it helps their immune system become strong so that they can fight off simple infections that wouldn't be even harmful to you or I, but can be really, really harmful and really difficult for their tiny little fragile bodies to handle."
And that's why Becky kept trying to produce her own breast milk, trying every tip and trick she heard from friends and her research online.
"I took every supplement, every lactation cookie, anything you could think of, I was trying," she recalled. "And it just wasn't working. So we ended up trying formula, and she was throwing up the formula, she just wasn't tolerating it.
So how do you feed breast milk to a preemie who can't latch? Well just like people who donate blood, there are women who donate breast milk, to help bottle-feed preemies like Parker who need that human milk to survive.
And that's how Becky met Jessica.
"A friend of mine said that she had a friend that heard our story and would love to donate milk to Parker," she explained. "So I ended up meeting Jessica, who is now her milk mama. She donates pretty much all of Parker's feedings to her. Like I would say 99.9% of her milk comes from Jessica."
That other 0.01%? Well that comes from Becky, who nine months later is still pumping every drop of liquid gold that she can get because breastfeeding her daughter is that important to her.
"She's been super healthy since she was born," Becky said proudly. "I think the help with the donor milk helps with her immune system. She hasn't had any illnesses, she loves it, she's happy. She's healthy."
Today Parker is crawling and laughing and growing steadily, all thanks to her Mother's milk.
"I just- I encourage everybody, if you have extra milk that you can donate, please do," Becky said with a grin. "It is so good for these babies. I mean, look at her! She was a preemie! She was 2 pounds 7 ounces and she's just doing amazing."
And as for Jessica, she's feeding more than just Parker with her liquid gold.
"She has donated over 12,000 ounces of milk and has fed 12 babies since her son Elijah was born in November," Becky said with a grin. That is 12 babies that she is feeding along with her son! It's amazing. Parker does not get formula at all, she gets 100% breast milk."
In case you're wondering, 12,000 ounces of milk is the equivalent of more than 93 gallons of breast milk!
23ABC is a proud sponsor of this week's Breast Milk Drive coming up on Friday at the Bakersfield Ronald McDonald House from 9 a.m. to noon. Representatives of the Mother's Milk Bank of San Jose are partnering with our local non-profit breastfeeding support group Baby Cafe Bakersfield to collect expressed breast milk for donation and screen nursing mothers as possible future donors.
"They can bring expressed milk if they have it," Staricka explained. "They can come out without any milk just to get screened by the staff from the Mother's Milk Bank of San Jose, and they can come out just to get information if they're sort of curious and they want to know more about it. And we really are encouraging local health care professionals to come out and take the opportunity to speak with the staff of the Mother's Milk Bank so that they can find out how to make mother's milk available in all of the hospitals locally for all of the babies who are in the NICU and all healthy term babies who might need beneficial milk the mothers aren't able to provide for them yet. We want that available to all the babies in Kern County."
"This drive is huge," Becky said. And she should know, not only because her daughter has benefited from donated milk, but because she's a NICU nurse herself. "There are so many, especially NICU babies, 23-weekers that we get and moms who are trying to pump but the milk just won't come in. And their tummies are so sensitive but they need this milk. They need this milk to help them grow, to get strong, to help them not get sick, lower ear infections, respiratory ear infections, to strengthen their immune system. It's so important and so many of these moms want what's best for their babies."
You can find more information about this Friday's Breast Milk Drive, and how to donate surplus expressed breast milk or cash to aid their efforts, here.
Also, if you are in need of breastfeeding support or education, get in touch with Baby Cafe, a group of local moms and volunteer IBCLC's who meet downtown every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Learn more on their Facebook page, here.
And find me online and share your breastfeeding journey! As a new mom myself I have an emotional story to tell and I love hearing from other moms too. We're in this together!