‘Each time we opened the freezer, we were at risk of being buried under an AVALANCHE of milk.’: Mom donates 200 ounces of breastmilk to local NICU

“My journey as a mother began in 2018 with the birth of my son. Motherhood is exactly as they don’t tell you: it’s difficult, it’s messy, it’s exhausting, it’s isolating, and most of all, it’s painful. What I didn’t know after giving birth was how difficult it would be to recover. Not only did I still look pregnant, but I was still having painful contractions and figuring out how to breastfeed. As a mother, you don’t have time to recover. While your body is contracting, leaking, bleeding, etc., there is a tiny little life looking to you for survival, and I was all too happy to oblige.

No one tells you how difficult breastfeeding is. No one tells you that while it is a natural phenomenon, it might not come naturally at all. No one tells you your nipples will crack and bleed, but you still have to feed your baby because of the stigma around formula feeding. The annoying adage ‘Breast is Best‘ can ring deafening in your ears. These are all the things that went through my head, anyway—all the added stress I put on myself wrapped up in social pressures.

My son was hungry all the time, and when I say hungry, I mean draining-both-breasts-every-two-hours hungry. I struggled to keep up. He would wake through the night every two hours to eat, so pumping was a rarity and when it did occur, I would only express about three ounces. I didn’t have any milk to spare with him, which didn’t allow me to be away from him for too long—trips to the grocery store or gym would have to fit within his two-hour nap window.

Courtesy of Sydney Brusewitz

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A few months in, my son started sleeping longer at night. What I didn’t know was if I didn’t pump throughout the night (even when he didn’t wake me to feed), I would slowly start to lose my milk supply—this is what inevitably happened to me. One day, my supply wasn’t sufficient enough to nourish my son. Sitting on my couch, I kept switching my son from my right boob to my left as he continued to wail in hunger. My husband confirmed what I had already feared—it was time to supplement with formula.

I cried. I cried irrationally, because:

I felt like a bad mom.

I felt like a failure.

I couldn’t do the one thing I should be able to do naturally.

I know many moms experience these same feelings. I knew at the time if one of my mom friends would have said these same things about herself, I would have comforted her, told her she wasn’t a failure. My husband comforted me, ‘You are not a failure. Plenty of babies are formula fed. This will give you more freedom to step away for longer than a nap time.’ All the rational thinking in the world didn’t make me feel better about myself.

Today, my son is a happy and healthy toddler, and the story of feeding my newborn daughter is vastly different. It’s true what they say about each pregnancy and each child being completely different. Two years after my son was born, I was in the hospital delivering my daughter. Similar feelings began to return, and the thought of not being able to breastfeed flashed through my mind.

Courtesy of Sydney Brusewitz

My daughter and I were being wheeled up one floor to the recovery rooms when the nurses asked if I was breastfeeding. I told them yes. They informed me if for some reason breastfeeding didn’t work out, I shouldn’t worry because the hospital would be able to provide my daughter with breast milk should she need it. This brief interaction put my mind a bit at ease, knowing my daughter would be able to get breast milk while I figured out my supply and we became familiar with feeding took some of the pressure off. However, I never thought for one minute I would be one to provide milk to babies in need.

My daughter was a breastfeeding natural. She latched on right away, and this time I was prepared for the searing pain I knew lingered for weeks as my nipples and breasts became accustomed to regular feedings. ‘We can do this,’ I thought triumphantly! One week after delivering, I noticed my daughter becoming full after feeding on one side. I started pumping the other side while she slept, and so began my freezer stockpile.

Courtesy of Sydney Brusewitz

I knew breastfeeding was difficult, but pumping after breastfeeding was on another level. My daughter would wake 2-3 times during the night, and while I struggled to stay awake to feed her, I struggled even more to prepare my pump parts, spend 15-20 minutes pumping, properly package and store the milk, all while knowing I would have a limited amount of sleep before doing it all over again. I knew I needed to keep my milk supply up this time, so I carried on.

At first, the storage bags contained 2-3 ounces, but before long I was filling them all the way up to six ounces. Suddenly, my freezer was overflowing. Each time one of us opened the freezer door, we were at risk of being buried under an avalanche of frozen breast milk—it became quite dangerous. I remembered what the delivering nurses told me about the availability of breastmilk, and I began researching milk donation sites in the area.

I came across the University of California Health Milk Bank, a fairly new nonprofit providing breastmilk to NICUs in San Diego. While I was fortunate enough not to have a child in the NICU, I’ve had friends and family members with premature babies who spent time in NICUs. I knew the struggles and stresses NICU families experienced and have always wanted to help in some way. The more I read about the Milk Bank, the more I learned about additional struggles NICU mothers go through—the potential inability to provide breastmilk for their babies due to sickness, health conditions, and/or just the stress from their circumstance.

Courtesy of Erik Jepsen

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for kids in need, but becoming a mother greatly exaggerated this feeling and exposed a deep sympathy and appreciation for moms. On January 20, 2021, I made my first breast milk donation—a whopping 200 ounces, with some supply still readily available in the freezer should my daughter need it! Today, my stockpile continues to grow and it’s time to make another donation—this may just be a monthly occurrence for me.

Courtesy of Sydney Brusewitz

In the back of my mind, I still worry I might suddenly lose my milk supply like I did the first time. But I remind myself why I donated in the first place—I think about infants fighting for a chance at life, and ultimately, I would rather my breastmilk be put to good use and potentially save a life than sit in my freezer. I no longer feel like a bad mom, like a failure. I feel as though I’m doing some good and have a sense of accomplishment, as though I might just have this breastfeeding thing figured out.

I look back now on feeding my son and wish I knew then what I know now, but I also realize how fortunate we were to be able to provide my son with formula—to have the resources to be able to feed him when I couldn’t. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time worrying about my milk supply, and I wish I would have opened up sooner about my struggles, because maybe it would give another mother some relief.

Courtesy of Sydney Brusewitz

For those mommas out there struggling to breastfeed, you aren’t alone. If I had known how difficult breastfeeding would be and how many women struggle with it, I don’t think I would have been as hard on myself. Moms know what is best for their little ones—don’t be afraid to listen to your instincts, and don’t be too proud to seek help or advice when you’re struggling.

If I had been more open about my dwindling milk supply, or mentioned it during my son’s pediatrician appointments or at my OBGYN follow ups, perhaps they would have provided some resources for me. Ultimately, every mother’s story is different. We are all figuring it out as we go. I constantly remind myself to enjoy the little moments, to learn from my past (the mistakes and the triumphs), and to take it one pumped ounce at a time.”

Courtesy of Sydney Brusewitz

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Sydney Brusewitz of San Diego, California.

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