Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Cross Nursing Story

A few months ago, a friend contacted me and asked me if I'd be available to nurse a baby whose mother was in the hospital and was unable to pump for her there. Baby M didn't take a bottle well, so the stored milk the family had (as well as the donated milk they had received from friends) wasn't going to do the trick. A friend of the family was organizing nursing mothers to go over to their home and nurse Baby M several times a day. For the other feeds, M's father and grandparents would attempt to feed her donor milk from a bottle.

I thought about it for a moment, and then responded to the inquiry, telling my friend that I'd be happy to help out as much as I could, as long as the family was alright with the age discrepancy between Daniel and Baby M (about 5 months) since I know that breastmilk content changes as a nursling gets older. The family got back to me and said they were fine with the age difference, so I signed up for a few time slots to go nurse Baby M!

I went over to their house several times to nurse M, who is an eager and active baby. I enjoyed chatting with her father, playing with her big brother, and getting to know her grandparents. A couple of times, I was even sent home with overflow vegetables from their garden. It was a lovely experience overall; it felt like this might be what it's like to live in a community that's more like a village.

Of the few people I've talked to about this experience with cross nursing, there have been a lot of questions. I asked a few of my friends at Natural Parents Network if they had any questions, and added those to the list, too.

Here is a sample set of the FAQs I've been asked about cross nursing:

Why did you do it?

I volunteered to nurse Baby M because if I was unable to nurse Daniel for whatever reason, I would want him to continue to receive breastmilk. I remember reading a story a couple of years ago about a baby whose mother died shortly after his birth from an amniotic fluid embolism. More than twenty mothers volunteered to nurse the baby boy, who was then breastfed by this "village" of mothers for over a year. I was deeply moved by the story of this community coming together to provide such a basic need for a child. I remember talking to Jaymz after reading the story (as I was pregnant with Daniel at the time) and asking him to promise to seek out breastmilk for our baby if anything ever happened to me.

It's important to me that my child has access to breastmilk even if I'm unable to nurse him myself, and the same was true for this family. I was happy to help that happen.

Was it...weird?

I love this question! I didn't find the experience to be off-putting at all, if that's what you mean. Though, I do think it would've felt more intuitive if I had known the baby personally before the first time I nursed her. If she was a close friend's baby, it would've felt more familiar the first time, I think.

I would, however, say it was different. I imagine it would be just like (tandem) nursing a second child of my own (though I don't know): there were just differences between the way she and Daniel nurse. For instance, her latch was different. She didn't open her mouth as wide as Daniel, so it felt unfamiliar. She was also more impatient for letdown than Daniel (which was probably a function of their age difference). She has a different personality than Daniel, and that was evident when I was holding her, in her body movements and sounds, and in the things she liked to do while nursing to occupy herself.

What did your partner/husband think?

Um, what? He was (of course) fine with it, as long as I was comfortable. Before the first time I went over to their home, he wanted to make sure that if I felt uncomfortable that I would be able to opt out of future times that I had already signed up for (which was the case). Other than that one concern, he was totally supportive.

How did your son react?

He actually didn't seem to mind at all. I talked to him about it beforehand, saying something like, "Momma's going to nurse a baby whose momma is in the hospital. I'm going to give her some of my milk, but you can still have as much as you want." I don't know how much of it he can understand at this point, but I'm sure it didn't hurt to talk it out with him before.

Given that we were at an unfamiliar house around people he didn't know, he was expectedly clingy while we were there, but not any more than usual. The first time I went over there without Jaymz, Daniel climbed up in my lap while I was nursing the baby and cuddled with us during. I talked to him about how the baby was nursing, and he pointed at her, then half-heartedly signed nurse (as if he was saying "nurse" without actually requesting it). We nursed when we got back home and he didn't act any differently than other days.

What about safety? Is there a risk of transmitting and/or catching anything (thrush/mastitis, etc.) from cross nursing?

I got lots of questions about health safety. Cross nursing has some unique risks compared to the risks of simply donating milk. By way of risk to the baby, the donor's milk (for obvious reasons) cannot be flash pasteurized (to kill pathogens) prior to ingestion. And on the donor's side, she is exposing herself to the baby's mouth environment.

The thing is, I didn't really have concerns about safety when I nursed Baby M. I've had a fair amount of experience with direct milk donation, and I felt comfortable taking the risks in this situation. I know I am a healthy, able donor who has been screened by other recipients of my milk and deemed fit to donate. I would've notified the family if I had been feeling sick or taking any medications at the time. I also trusted the people I was interacting with to do the same for me in return when it came to Baby M's health. This trust relationship worked well, too: there was at least one other mom signed up for nursing who bowed out at one point when she and her child fell ill, so Baby M and the mothers volunteering to nurse her were never exposed.

For more information about the risks of informal milk sharing, I like this post from Annie at PhD in Parenting which compares and contrasts the risks and benefits of feeding formula versus (shared) human donor milk.

Would you do it again?

Absolutely! It was fun to meet some new people, and I enjoyed helping out sweet Baby M. I probably would not do it again now that Daniel is getting close to a year and a half old and he's nursing less (so I have less milk), but I would do it again if I had milk to spare with a future nursling.

I'm glad I volunteered to help out this family, as it's opened up a whole new branch of thinking and conversation about milksharing in my world. One of the best things about it is getting to hear others' stories of being nursed by aunts and other family members as babies.  

Do you have any experience with cross nursing (as the nurser or the nursling)? I'd love to hear more of your stories!

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  1. Beautiful story!! I loved that story about the baby whose momma died and his daddy arranged for donors and cross nursers, too, and I told my hubby about it and made it clear I would want that, if I died! Funny. =)

  2. What a cool story! Thanks for sharing it!

  3. I was nursed by both my mom and my aunt and I was glad my aunt was willing to give me her BM rather then formula. It also took stress off my mom when she had to go back to work. I was able to donate about 5000oz of breast milk to various mom and babies!

  4. It was as a beautiful thing you were able to do.

  5. I recently had the great privilege of wet-nursing a 5 day old baby. It was a beautiful and profound experience: such an amazing gift to baby, his family and to me as well. It's so unfortunate that more people don't know that this great opportunity for caring for one another exists and is perfectly normal and ideal. I wrote about my experience here if you're interested in reading about it.

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