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Grieving mom gives gift of breast milk after stillbirth

Julie Ryan Evans is an editor and writer who has covered everything from Capitol Hill to the politics of preschool. A mother of two, a runner of races, and a gourmet chef wannabe, she currently lives outside of Orlando, Florida.

Mom fights for rights of grieving moms who want to donate breast milk after loss

When Amy Anderson of Caribou, Maine, was 20 weeks pregnant, she knew. The home Doppler she regularly used wouldn't pick up her son's heartbeat, and she was in denial that they had lost Bryson after a month of tests and procedures to save him.

Unfortunately, on Oct. 28, 2010, doctors confirmed her instinct, letting her know that Bryson had died in utero from complications of a lower urinary tract obstruction. The mom of 3-year-old Brody had already lost another child to a miscarriage earlier in the year, and her grief was overwhelming.

"I didn't know what my purpose was anymore, " she told SheKnows. "I prayed I would find it."

More: Mother donates 29 gallons of breast milk to help other moms

Then, about 36 hours after a stillbirth, her milk started coming in. Doctors had assured her that she wasn't far enough along in her pregnancy that her milk — Bryson's milk, as she prefers to call it — would come in, but there it was. And there was a lot of it.

"I'm a huge producer," she said. "I was so full of milk, I couldn't even put my arms down."

Her doctor told her to take Sudafed, cover her breasts in cabbage leaves and bind them up to stop the flow of milk. Nothing worked, so she started pumping and freezing the milk. In frustration, she posted online, looking for advice. "I lost my baby, my milk has come in, and I don't know what to do." That was when her prayer was answered.

Dr. Kathleen Marinelli, a neonatologist and lactation specialist, happened upon her post and contacted her. She educated Amy about how valuable her preterm breast milk — or "liquid gold" — was because of the extra nutrients it contains. Anderson, who breastfed her older son but had never really heard of breast milk banks, said that after learning more, she knew it was what she needed to do.

More: Why diluting breast milk can be dangerous

"That's when I realized this is my purpose," she said. "I knew we could help so many people."

And she did. In total, she expressed for eight months, donating 11,762 ounces of breast milk — almost 92 gallons — to the Mothers' Milk Bank Northeast and Mother's Milk Bank of Ohio. Her milk went to help children in at least five states and three different countries.

Not only was it amazing for the families that received her milk, but donating it also helped Anderson work through her grief.

"It kept me connected to Bryson, and I felt like I was doing something to honor his life," she said. "Baby loss is not a typical grief. When you lose a baby, people expect you to get over it. 'Don't mention that baby, that baby is gone.' Babies lost during pregnancy, birth or infancy are kind of an abstract thought to everyone else, so I loved that in donating Bryson's milk, I got to say his name regularly. Some people were still weirded out, but there was lots of support, and his life was acknowledged [through my donations]."

Unfortunately not everyone was supportive of her efforts.

She didn't cry in front of them, but Anderson is pretty sure that school administrators where she worked as a long-term substitute preschool teacher could see her quivering as she walked away after they bluntly told her that breast milk expression laws didn't apply in her situation… because her baby was dead.

Not only did they relegate her to pump in a tiny bathroom that didn't even have a sink, but they also said she shouldn't take additional breaks to pump during work hours (even though they were unpaid breaks). Too burdened by her grief at that time to fight, she simply worked around their objections through the end of the school year.

More: The Mamafesto: What moms need to know about breast milk banks

"I was so deep in grief, I didn't push it, and I wasn't really educated in breastfeeding law," she said. "I made it work and even created a new lactation room within a storage room that is still being used today by other moms."

After eight months of pumping, she decided to wean herself so they could try to get pregnant once again. After two more miscarriages, the family decided they couldn't handle any more heartbreak. Then along came their miracle baby, Owen.

"I always tell people that when I die not to worry about me because I'm going to have the most glorious homecoming. I have four babies up there waiting for me!"

Mom fights for rights of grieving moms who want to donate breast milk after loss
Image: Amy Anderson

Now Anderson is fighting to change things so that other grieving (or even surrogate) women don't face the challenges she faced if they want to donate their breast milk. She's working to change the federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law, which requires employers to "provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk."

The problem is in the language that says "her nursing child," which excludes grieving mothers who want to pump and donate their breast milk to others, as Anderson did. She believes that all lactating women should be covered under the law.

In the meantime, she wants to share Bryson's story with as many people as possible so that other grieving mothers know their options.

"It's not for everyone, don't get me wrong, but I don't want any other grieving mom who chooses to donate through grief to hear that they can't pump because their baby is dead," she said. "I need to change this!"
For more information about donating breastmilk and more on Amy's story.
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