Military Milk Sharing: How donating my milk while away from my baby supported my mental health

In April of 2018, I was set to attend a Navy training across the country from my family. I didn’t want to disrupt my then 13 month old’s schedule and my husband and I had an amazing care situation. Our nanny was phenomenal and I didn’t want to have to worry about an already saturated care market where I was going. I would be gone for six weeks. As an overproducer, I felt that I had plenty of milk at home for my son to continue  having breast milk while I was gone, but knew I would continue pumping while I was away to maintain my supply. 

I had heard about milk donation at that point, but wasn’t aware that then, the process was fairly cumbersome compared to today. I did not plan for the time it would take to get a blood draw and get approved to donate to a milk bank. My hotel was amazing – they let me store my milk bricks in their freezer. While I was only pumping twice a day, I was starting to take up more and more space. This is when I came across a Facebook platform for peer to peer milk sharing in the location I was in. I reached out on there offering my breastmilk to a family that may need it. I ended up connecting with a family, who to my surprise, was also military affiliated! She had suffered a very traumatic birth and was not supported to breastfeed her son. He had major intolerances to the formulas they would try, and they turned to donor milk to feed him. At that time he was 5 months old. I resonated with this family, as my journey started out very similarly. I began to meet with this family weekly to drop my milk off to them. I can’t even begin to describe how much this connection supported my mental health. 

I had very bad postpartum anxiety that I did not get treatment for by that point. What saved me was the fact that my son was in the best hands between my husband and our nanny, and that I kept pumping and was able to support another family who needed that gift. When I would end the day and felt that anxiety start to creep in – which would take the form of guilt for being away, sadness, or being extremely worried about my little one – pumping really helped support me through that. Then, knowing that milk was going to a baby that really needed it – wow – I felt like that was a way that my son and I were able to give our gift to someone else. I felt closer to him even though we were so far apart. We hear so often this idea that breastfeeding negatively impacts your mental health. Science and my experience tells us that is not the case at all. It’s the lack of support we receive that is what is affecting our mental health. Continuing to pump and sharing our milk saved me from that giant pit of anxiety. It was the best feeling to see that family and that beautiful baby boy and know that our village was a strong one and that I could help support this family because of something my son and I chose to do. It’s a wildly beautiful, powerful, and humbling experience. 

I wish I would have kept contact with that little family I supported those many years ago. I would love to know what they’re doing, how they’re doing, and where they are. For me, knowing that we could be such a tiny part of that journey is really special. I have supported countless families that chose to share with others – whether peer to peer or to a milk bank. This strengthens the belief that we MUST and that we CAN parent together. The California Breastfeeding Coalition did a webinar on peer to peer milk sharing and we all ended the session with tears in our eyes and smiles on our hearts. To hear first hand from families that have received and from those that gave to them – it’s so moving to see community created in this way. This is why I am a milk donor. Sometimes – most of the times – it takes all of us. Breastfeeding supported my mental health, and sharing that gift with others made our separation a little bit easier. 

Gaby Cavins

Executive Director of the Military Birth Resource Network and Postpartum Coalition

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