New mum Kiersten Rajaraman braced herself for the pain of labor and the sleepless nights to come, but she didn’t expect breastfeeding to be so difficult.
“I just remember crying at 3:30 in the morning because it was like, what am I doing wrong?” said the surgeon from Halifax, Nova Scotia. “I remember having a roadmap for work and there is no roadmap for breastfeeding.”
After four frustrating months and many conversations with lactation consultants, Rajaraman’s daughter still refused to breastfeed. She knew her baby was getting the nutrition she needed from the bottle, so she started pumping exclusively.
“Our freezer quickly became like, I’m not kidding, it was breast milk and a bag of frozen berries,” she said.
Even as Rajaraman started pumping less, she found she was producing far more milk than her daughter would ever need. So last week she packed up the “liquid gold” and shipped nearly 48 liters of it across the country to help feed babies in need.
Since the IWK Health Center in Halifax does not have a milk bank like hospitals in Vancouver and Toronto, it depends on human milk donations from Canada’s only community milk bank in Calgary.
Rajaraman said donating breast milk was a complicated process if you live anywhere on the East Coast, but she said it was worth it to help some of the smallest and most vulnerable patients in the province. .
Donor milk is pooled, pasteurized and tested for safety at the NorthernStar Milk Bank in Calgary, then distributed to 31 hospitals across the country, including the IWK.
It is reserved for babies in neonatal intensive care units who need it most.
The girl benefited from donor milk
Rajaraman’s daughter, now six months old, spent the first week of her life in neonatal intensive care.
Because she was born a little early and has health problems, Rajaraman and her husband initially chose to give her donor milk.
Now Rajaraman said it was his turn to give back.
Listen to Kiersten Rajaraman share his story with CBC Radio’s Mainstreet:
NS Main Street8:28Meet the NS Mom who donates 48,000ml of breast milk to help babies in need
“I’ve been blessed, and I say blessed, because I know…a lot of people struggle on the opposite spectrum, like they just can’t get their milk in or they just can’t get enough milk, ” she says.
“That’s a significant amount of milk that I would never want to waste.”
Last fall, Rajaraman contacted NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank and began the process to become a donor, which includes screening questions, blood work and a doctor’s signature. The charity reimburses the donor’s expenses for shipping the milk.
Jannette Festival, co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit, said it’s a lot of work and not for everyone, but those who are able to donate are “all helping to save a baby”.
The charity typically has between 600 and 800 donors, but has recently seen a drop in East Coast donors, Festival said.
A need for more donors
Last year, there were six donors in total from this region, including five from Nova Scotia. This is down from 2020, when there were 10 donors from Nova Scotia and six from New Brunswick.
Festival said this means that last year around 1% of the charity’s donors came from the East Coast, while hospitals here accepted 11% of total donations – with the IWK receiving 8%.
“We would like to see a few more people donate, just to even out,” Festival said, adding that the charity can handle about double the volume of donor milk it currently receives.
Meanwhile, the IWK has no plans to open its own milk bank.
A hospital spokesperson said in an email that “the most feasible and sustainable option for providing pasteurized human milk to IWK patients is continuing to purchase from an established milk bank.”
Michelle Higgins, clinical dietitian at the IWK NICU, said donor milk, which arrives at the hospital frozen and is stored in a secure locker, is very beneficial for babies born early, very small or with intestinal problems.
“I think there are definitely more and more hospitals using donor milk, at least in the NICU population, just as the literature is growing and more and more evidence is there to support use,” she said.
Families often wonder if the milk is safe and where it comes from, and IWK staff say there is a clear consent process before a newborn receives donor milk.
Rajaraman recently posted on Facebook about the difficulties she faced breastfeeding her daughter and why it inspired her to become a donor.
Soon after, she was receiving messages from strangers and friends she hadn’t spoken to in years, all sharing their own stories.
The challenges they faced were all unique, Rajaraman said, but it’s clear that many felt unprepared to face the obstacles and were hungry for more education.
“It seemed like they were just looking for an outlet to share their own struggles and feel like someone else was going through the same thing,” she said.