Family Matters

Mom’s Dying Wish: Breast Milk for Her Baby. How Nursing Moms Teamed Up to Provide It

Sharing breast milk is an old idea that has become new again

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Renee Noble with her infant daughter, Violet

Imagine that you are pregnant only to learn that you’re dying of liver cancer. Your thoughts automatically focus on your unborn child, and how he or she will make it through the vulnerable infant years without you.

And if you are Renee Noble, that includes the very pragmatic question of how, or who, will breastfeed her baby. Noble, 42, gave birth to baby Violet on Nov. 17; she died on Dec. 15. In that shared span of one month, Noble, a mother of five from Chatham, N.Y., made a wish: that Violet be nourished by breast milk.

The online call for human milk went out last week from a website, Milk for Baby Violet. On Saturday, one commenter, solsticeh, wrote: “372 ounces are on their way for Baby Violet today. God blessed me with a great supply and now I’m so happy to be able to feed another baby too. Praying for Baby Violet and family and will continue to pump!”

Bloggers helped spread the word, and soon, there was more milk than Violet could possibly use. “Violet will absolutely, DEFINITELY have all of the milk that she needs,” emailed Bekki Hill, who is helping organize the milk drive, to a lactation consultant who had reposted the need for milk on her Facebook page.

MORE: Target Nurse-In: Did It Change Perceptions of Public Breast-Feeding?

The concept of milk sharing is both old and very new. Before formula, mothers who couldn’t feed their infants had to rely on the generosity of others. “Wet nurse” used to be a legitimate occupation, and women were paid to feed the babies of other women who couldn’t — or often didn’t care to — nurse their own children. The prophet Muhammad was fed by a wet nurse as were Napoleon and Luciano Pavarotti.

In a story I wrote about milk banking for O, the Oprah Magazine in 2009, I explored the history of donor milk:

In the United States, the practice of using surrogate nursers died out in the early 1900s, when formula became popular. But even then doctors were aware that breastfed babies were hardier than those who got formula. In 1911, a Boston physician opened a facility where poor mothers who were nursing their own babies, were paid to pump milk for other infants. It was, effectively, the country’s first human milk bank.

By the 1980s, there were about 30 milk banks in the United States, all of them not-for-profit. The banks were the answer for mothers whose health issues (prior breast surgery, diabetes, pituitary gland or thyroid problems) hindered milk production, or whose milk had been tainted by medical treatments. They were ideal for mothers whose milk supply was stifled by the stress of premature birth.

Then AIDS arrived, and suddenly bodily fluids were terrifying. The AIDS virus was deadly, and it could be transmitted through breast milk. Milk banks started closing; before long, fewer than 10 remained.

Milk banks have since rebounded and are now flourishing around the country, supplying milk mostly to preterm babies in hospitals. Demands for their milk — which has been thoroughly tested and pasteurized — are so high that some banks have had to turn recipients away.

MORE: Milk Banks vs. Milk Swaps: Breast Milk’s Latest Controversy

At the same time, milk sharing has increased in popularity because of its simplicity: one mom has excess frozen milk; another needs some. It’s mothers directly helping other mothers, and some women prefer this route to the rigorous screening that milk banks require. (The friends and relatives helping secure milk for Violet requested donors provide copies of pregnancy labwork or a doctor’s note indicating they were healthy.)

Diana Cassar-Uhl, a lactation consultant in Cornwall, N.Y., who helped publicize the milk drive, acknowledged that some people are uncomfortable with sharing breast milk. But she found it inspiring that Noble, even in the midst of her personal trauma, tried to make provisions for how her baby daughter would be fed. “In her dying weeks, to make sure that her baby gets human milk, that’s just amazing to me,” says Cassar-Uhl.