Baby Care

After losing a baby, grieving moms donate breast milk to give other newborns the best chance at life

After losing a baby, grieving moms donate breast milk to give other newborns the best chance at life
Written by Publishing Team

Thirty-two weeks and two days.

That’s how long everything seemed to be going well before a pregnant Tiffany Tonsager from Oakdale “just felt something was wrong.” A visit to the clinic on August 2 confirmed that “he was not moving as he should.” After further tests at the hospital, Tonsager delivered by Caesarean section on August 3.

But little Ian, who fought so hard, died the next day from hydrops fetalis, a prenatal disease in which abnormal amounts of fluid accumulated, putting enormous pressure on developing organs.

“We got to spend a little time with him,” said Tonsager, 27, “He held our hands and we sang for him, but ultimately it was too hard on his heart and lungs.”

As she and her husband, Ben, were gripped by grief, Tonsager found solace in performing a remarkable act of giving. Since early August, she has been pumping – and donating – about 30 ounces per day of vital breast milk to the Minnesota Milk Bank for Babies (MMBB).

Hers and other donated breast milk are delivered to hospital neonatal intensive care units, special care nurseries and nursing units, where new mothers use it as a bridge for their medically vulnerable newborns to the ” that they are able to breastfeed or breastfeed their breast milk. own.

“Moms just need a little time for their bodies to understand how to make milk, and babies just need a little time to learn how to take it,” said the bank’s executive director. milk, Linda H. Dech.

“The research is increasingly clear on the impact of breast milk on human babies,” said Dech, an international board-certified lactation consultant who has worked for more than 20 years advocating for and supporting breastfeeding.

“It was only around 150 years since we started offering infant formula,” Dech said. “Families have come to realize the importance of breast milk for their babies and to have this type of nutrition available to them, especially in neonatal intensive care units.”

Milk donated by approved donors is collected from about 30 sites, or “depots,” around the state – as far north as Roseau and as far south as Fairmont – then sent to the milk bank for pasteurization and distribution throughout Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. Pasteurization kills many harmful viruses and bacteria, but preserves most of the useful components of breast milk, Dech said.

Moms at the front desk have to pay a small fee – around $ 18 for a 4-ounce bottle – which Dech says is the norm across the country. She noted that a small amount “could provide many meals for a baby in the NICU.”

The Golden Valley-based nonprofit has provided more than 330,000 ounces of donor milk over the past two years, Dech said, and hopes to expand to include all maternity hospitals in the state.

Donor mothers, including birth mothers, are screened and must have a blood test to make sure their breast milk is safe for premature babies. “We ask in detail about drugs, supplements and herbs,” Dech said.

Breastfeeding is not a hard sell in this state. Breastfeeding initiation rates, Dech said, are 90% in Minnesota. “Clearly, this is the norm. “

Interestingly, the COVID lockdown has been a boon to the bank.

“Due to the stay-at-home orders, no one could go anywhere,” Dech said. “The moms were home with their babies, pumping. We couldn’t deal with it fast enough. It was a good problem to have.”

“It’s time to sit down and think about him”

After the birth of her oldest son, James, 20 months ago, Tonsager has found breastfeeding easy and enjoyable.

“My milk came right away and I have very fatty milk which is good for the babies in the NICU,” she said.

Now, making a donation gives her something more: a precious opportunity to stay close to Ian.

“Pumping gives me time to sit down and think about it every day,” she said. “I can sing to her, talk to her and know that together we are helping other people feed their babies and get those antibodies that they might not otherwise get.”

Her husband Ben, she said, “has been really great. We pack the milk together and he labels it, so he can be part of it too. He gave James a pump bottle a day, and it was really hard for him that he couldn’t be a part of that either [with Ian]. It was nice to be able to share this with him. ”

She hopes to continue giving for six months.

Charlie Van Pawelk was also a fighter. Born at 36 weeks and 3 days, he lived for about 10 minutes before succumbing on July 31 to a rare congenital condition called limb body deformity.

“He was so beautiful and then he passed away peacefully in our arms,” said mom Karilyn Pawelk of Delano. “He fought hard for life, and he was our strength.”

A photographer arrived that morning to take family photos, she said. “They were very beautiful and we have these photos all over our house. Charlie is always with us.”

Pawelk, 32, had exclusively breastfed her 4-year-old son Leo and 2-year-old daughter Winslett. (She is also the mother-in-law of Jackson, 15.)

Although she cannot remember her dealings with the milk bank, she felt “obligated” to donate. She started pumping in the hospital the day Charlie died and continued to be “part of our daily routine,” she said.

“We’ve had a lot of generous people along the way, and it’s a way for us to pay it forward,” she said. “At the hospital with Charlie, while I pumped, we prayed that he would go to the babies who fought for life like Charlie, and we prayed that they could come home with their mothers, may this milk give them strength Charlie had done it. “

She estimates that she has donated 2,000 ounces of breast milk since the summer, with another 1,000 ounces in her freezer. She jokes that it has to be donated “because we are running out of space”.

Tribute to bereaved mothers

While every donation of breastmilk is gratefully acknowledged, MMBB donor coordinator Kris Scott said bereaved mothers are a special group. As co-chair of the association’s bereavement working group with Renee Torbenson, she has developed educational materials that are distributed in hospitals to let bereaved mothers know that donating milk is an option.

Scott pointed out that the choice of expressing and giving breast milk is not the right one for all bereaved mothers or birth parents, who might find the presence of milk upsetting. “There is no right or wrong way to feel,” Scott said. “Mothers should be gentle with themselves and know that the feelings they are experiencing are perfectly normal and correct.”

For some, however, giving the milk that would have nourished their babies helps them get through their grief, Scott said. To remember these babies and recognize this act, Scott and Torbenson started a memorial program, which features a handmade quilt “Our Forever Butterflies” displayed on the wall of the milk bank.

The quilt is decorated with a colorful fan of flowers and butterflies soaring to the sky. Each of the 37 butterflies have the first name and date of birth of a “forever baby,” Scott said. Another butterfly is made and given to the family as a keepsake.

Handmade quilts will be added over time. “It is heartwarming to know that you are helping families find peace, and recover and recover,” Scott said.

Tonsager, whose forever baby is reflected in one of these butterflies, hopes other grieving mothers might feel the comfort she experiences “in having time to pump and see her name.

“It means a lot to me that he’s still known.”

Gail Rosenblum is Editor-in-Chief of Inspired.

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