The village raising my breastfed child

This piece was first published in Essence Magazine

It’s 2:03am and I feel like giving up. I feel depleted; my body slumped in the soft camping chair we’ve brought into the corner of the bedroom to give me a comfortable place to feed my newborn baby boy. But it’s not comfortable; no matter what chair I sit in, what pillows I use, what position I put him in. I want to scream, “Get off me” but all I can manage is a muffled sob as my baby sucks and sucks, trying his darndest to get what he needs to stay alive.

Unfortunately my body is struggling to meet that need. With the support of two fabulous midwives, I’ve done all the right things to ensure we get a good start to breastfeeding – a natural birth, lots of skin to skin, checked his latch, tried different positions, fed every two hours, swapped breasts – and yet the weight is falling off his tiny body. It’s heartbreaking, and at 2:03am that morning, it feels like I have no more left to give. I decide to get a little sleep and reassess when daylight breaks.


I stare bleary eyed at the fridge door. An earlier version of me, excited for the impending arrival of her firstborn, delicately cut out a phone number printed in teal green and stuck it to the fridge. Helpline, it says. 24 hours. I call the number and wait nervously for someone to answer. “Hello, welcome to the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s 24 hour helpline,” says a woman’s warm voice. “This is Sharon.”

Before I know it both words and tears are pouring out of me. I tell Sharon about my expectations and the crushing reality that breastfeeding is so much harder than I assumed it would be. I tell her I feel like giving up, that I can’t do it. Her soothing tone envelops me like the hug I didn’t realize I needed. She asks if I have tried pumping. I have but not very successfully. She asks where I live and we realize that she is a 20-minute drive from me. “Of all of our breastfeeding counsellors around Australia who could have answered your phone call, you got the one that was around the corner from your house,” she exclaims. We organize for my husband to pick up a hospital grade pump later that night. But it’s less about the pump, and more about knowing that there is a virtual village of patient women waiting for me to call anytime of the day or night so they can listen without judgment.


Unfortunately my baby is still losing weight and I need to make a decision to top up. My midwives present me with two options: Formula or donor breast milk. Curious, I start to do a bit of research. I stumble across the World Health Organisation/UNICEF Declaration of 1980 that states ‘Where it is not possible for the biological mother to breastfeed, the first alternative, if available, should be the use of human milk from other sources.” While it feels right to me, others around me are not so sure. “What if the mother has an illness and this passes through the milk?” I hear. Sure, it’s a risk. But so is everything in life. I decide to choose trust over fear.

I type my first message to a potential donor mother cautiously. “Dear Katie. I hate to ask but just wanted to check whether all your antenatal screenings were negative? And are you a smoker/drinker/coffee drinker?” She responds: “Here are my blood test results (so you can feel confident feeding my milk to your baby).” She’s a mum; she gets it. I grab an esky, fill it with ice bricks and drive over the Westgate Bridge like a mother possessed. Katie greets me at the door, babe in arms and welcomes me warmly to her home. I feel safe and cared for and the fear melts away. That’s the thing about fear; it’s hard to feel it when you’re up close.

And so my liquid gold (donor milk) journey begins. My network of mamas starts small, but before long I find myself travelling all over Melbourne in search for breastmilk to satisfy my rapidly-weight-gaining baby’s insatiable appetite. With that pressure off, I can also feel my body relaxing into breastfeeding. It’s still not easy but it’s a hell of a lot easier than it was.


I post a request for milk on my local Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA) Facebook group and have several mums offer to pump regularly for me. (We need to take a moment to appreciate how massive a gift this is. Pumping is not the leisurely activity that movies make it out to be. It can be boring, inconvenient and even sometimes painful. That’s why donating breastmilk is a special kind of altruism.)

Before long I receive a reply from Sharon: “A mum at our meeting today is happy to donate to you…she has a massive supply. I will send you her details.”

And that’s how I met Trish. She’s not only provided my baby with life-sustaining breastmilk on the regular, but she has also helped me navigate the early stages of motherhood with her non-judgmental ear, reassuring words and bottomless cups of tea.


There’s an old adage that says it takes a village to raise a child. Nowhere is the breakdown of the village more obvious than in breastfeeding. Breastfeeding demands so much of you as a new mum, and meeting that demand is near impossible without support and encouragement around the clock. Organisations like the Australian Breastfeeding Association and Human Milk 4 Human Babies are doing their best to reconstruct the village. Without them, I couldn’t have done this.

My son has now received milk from over 30 mothers. Think of all the microbiomes his gut has been exposed to!

The biggest of thank yous to my amazing regular donor mums – Nisa, Olivia, Trish and Jade.

And to the many other mums who have helped my bub nearly crack the 10kg mark – Jenni, Jodie, Jessica, Kim, Mandira, Georgina, Erica, Kathryn, Rohini, Amy, Lisa P, Lisa G, Kimberley, Stella, Zoe, Irene, Natasha, Rachael, Cj, Melanie, Elizabeth, Kylie, Katie, Sophia, Marcelina, Harriet, Anna and Marijn.

I almost didn’t tell this story. I have been hiding embarrassment about needing support from so many people and probably a bit of internalized shame from the stigma of publicly talking about breastfeeding. But a recent experience changed me. I went to pick up milk from a gorgeous mum whose baby boy Boet was born prematurely and, after a long but brave fight in hospital, passed away. She said that it helped her to know that his milk was helping so many other babies live. I share this story in his memory, which lives on in my son.