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In honor of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, observed every year on October 15th, the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes wants bereaved moms to hear about a little-known option: Donating their milk.
Kate Weidner of Oak Park, Illinois, says donating her breast milk was crucial to her healing process after losing her son Everett in 2017.
After being diagnosed with vasa previa, an extremely rare complication involving the umbilical cord, Kate was scheduled for a c-section at 34 weeks. This would allow her to deliver early enough to avoid going into labor, but late enough for the baby's safety.
Things didn’t go as planned. When she was 33 weeks and two days along, she started bleeding heavily. She called 911. An ambulance rushed her to the nearest hospital, where she had an emergency c-section.
When Kate woke up from surgery, Everett was in critical condition and was transferred to a children’s hospital in Chicago. Kate was transferred there too as soon as she was stable.
“Once we got there, the doctors explained to me there was just no chance for him, that he had lost a ton of blood. Luckily, my husband made it in time when Everett was still alive and we were able to hold him and spend some time with him before he eventually passed away that day.”
It wasn’t until she was alone in her hospital room afterward when it dawned on Kate that her milk was going to come in. “Your body doesn’t know you don’t have a baby. My body didn't know he was gone. My body continued to make milk as if he were here. That realization just kind of hit me.”
Kate made the decision to donate Everett’s milk. She had read about donor milk when preparing for Everett’s stay at the NICU. She started pumping while still at the hospital, and, with the guidance of a lactation consultant, was able to donate her milk directly to the hospital for critically ill and premature babies in the NICU.
Kate continued pumping once she got home, storing the milk in her freezer as she collected. In total, she donated about 300 ounces of Everett’s breast milk to the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes. “It was really emotional. But it was also really healing. I went about six weeks after Everett died, and I really felt him there with me when I was doing that, which was great," said Kate. "I packed up the cooler and I just felt so proud of him and of us.”
A star with Everett’s name hangs on a memory wall at the main milk bank office near Chicago, along with the names of other babies whose mothers donated their milk.
Roughly 15 percent of donors at the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes, which serves Illinois and Wisconsin, are bereavement donors, according to donor coordinator Susan Urbanski.
Another one of the memorial stars bears the name Liam – the first child of Anna Calix.
“His pregnancy was just great; I didn’t even have morning sickness or anything,” Anna, who also lives in the Chicago area, told BabyCenter. “At every appointment, everything looked fine. He was a really active baby.”
Two days before her due date, Anna noticed her baby wasn’t moving as much as he normally did. “Being my first time having a baby, I didn’t know what was supposed to be normal or not.” [Editor's note: Learn how a baby's fetal movements feel, week by week]
After making some phone calls Anna decided to head to the hospital to get checked. Several different healthcare professionals attempted to find her baby’s heartbeat, but a doctor eventually confirmed her worst fear: Her baby boy had died. Anna was induced, and Liam was born still, due to what was determined to be a placental issue, as well as a fetomaternal hemorrhage.
In the face of this devastating loss, Anna was grateful for the opportunity to donate her, and Liam’s, milk: “When your baby dies in utero, you still have to go through all of the same postpartum changes that you do with a live-born baby,” Anna said. “It’s really kind of traumatizing – especially, I think, with milk production. But I felt like losing him needed to mean something, and I knew that was something I could do.”
“It gives you a purpose; it gives you something to do in those early days,” she continued. “Because you’re just kind of drifting through the day, and your mind can’t focus on anything. I remember just the process of getting up and getting dressed in the morning was this incredible long, difficult, painful process. Because you don’t want to get up and get dressed and face the day.”
Anna pumped every three hours for about three months. In total, she pumped about 700 ounces of Liam’s milk, and donated 425 ounces to the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes. She donated most of what remained to two local moms, and saved just enough for herself to have breast milk jewelry made.
“The whole time I was doing this, it was comforting to know that all of that effort – as difficult as it was, both logistically as well as emotionally – was going to be worth it because he was going to help save babies’ lives,” Anna said. “Pumping kind of forced me to think about Liam, to think about what happened and what I was going through. Kind of like special time dedicated to him, in a way, too. I think having to think about it and process it kind of helped me move forward,"
Anna eventually went on to have a second son, Rio, who is now 6 months old.
“I think many, many moms want to somehow carry on their child’s legacy, help them be remembered, and this is a really excellent way of doing that,” she said. “I think just knowing that even though you lost your baby, by doing this, your baby is helping other babies. That's a powerful thought.”
As for Kate? She’s expecting her third child, a baby girl, in January.
“It’s worth it to me to share our story – even though it’s very sad – if even one mother hears what happened to us and is aided in her grieving process through milk donation,” Kate told BabyCenter. “For me, milk donating was one of the most important things I did in my grieving process. It gave me a sense of purpose and it gave me control of my body.”
“I’m not saying that this is the right thing for everyone to do, at all,” she continued. “But it’s important people know it’s an option because it can give you back your sense of purpose, and help you give purpose to your baby’s life.”
Susan Urbanski, donor coordinator for the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes, understands milk donation is a very personal choice, and not every mother will want to donate her milk. But, for those who do make the choice, there are two dozen milk banks similar to Western Great Lakes’ throughout the U.S., with hundreds of milk collection sites.
“Milk donation after loss is always possible. We accept all bereavement donations, regardless of any medications or lifestyle concerns. Any milk that cannot be processed for distribution can be used as part of our research program," says Urbanski. "We have an in-house microbiology lab, and we also partner with hospitals and universities for ongoing human milk research projects."
While awareness is growing, milk donation is not yet a well-known option for grieving mothers who must endure the physically and emotionally painful experience of having their milk come in, and no baby to feed. Let’s spread the word: The benefits of donated milk reach beyond the mothers who so generously provide it, all the way to the mouths and bellies of all the premature infants who receive this gift of pure love.
Hear from a few brave mothers of babies gone too soon about their experience with bereavement milk donation in this video, produced by Mothers' Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes
Opinions expressed by parent contributors are their own.