I recently learned about an online group for women diagnosed with cancer during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. It's been an amazing resource, and I'm so glad to have found it--I only wish I'd found it sooner!
A question came up this evening in the group about donor breastmilk, and as I was replying, I decided it'd be a good blog post for any other pregnant cancer mamas out there who stumble on the blog. First, a history, and then my tips.
The hardest thing for me to accept when I was first diagnosed was the realization that I wouldn't be able to breastfeed. It was something I'd really wanted to do; it was the thing I most looked forward to doing once the baby was born.
Then my sister called me one evening. She'd heard from her husband's cousin, who had a child a few months old. She'd donated breastmilk in the past, and she was willing, if we were interested, in donating milk to our baby. I'd never considered it. I loved the idea, and I talked to my doctor at my next appointment. He was a big fan--he started the donor milk bank at the hospital!
That cousin said they had another cousin who was breastfeeding and had an oversupply; she was also willing to donate. Between the two, I'd almost certainly have enough milk to keep the baby on breastmilk for six weeks.
A couple more people offered milk. The first two offered more milk that they'd pumped since I got the first batches. It looked like we'd have almost enough to get Finn through his cleft lip repair surgery, and so I decided to start putting more effort into finding milk. Thanks to another amazing moms' group I'm in, we got so much milk I had to make room in our regular freezer--it wouldn't all fit in the chest freezer.
Store the milk at the coldest temperature your freezer can reach. A deep freezer is best, as it gets so much colder. Breast milk in a deep freezer is good for a year or more. Breast milk in a regular freezer is good for six months or more.
Store bags of milk in gallon size Ziploc* bags in the freezer. Group them by date. That makes it easier to find what you need quickly.
Every night, I'd pull out enough milk for the following day. Some of the bags weren't labeled with the amount, so it was always a bit of a guessing game, but I got pretty good at it.
I'd try to pull about equal amounts of milk from each donor. When we switched from the first person's milk to the second person's, Finn had some belly trouble (mostly gas). Once we had more milk from other donors, I started mixing the milk together. It helped his belly troubles greatly.
I'd put the bags of milk into sealed Ziploc** bags and then into a large bowl of warm water to defrost ( and change out the water when it'd get cold). Eventually I got smart and pulled the milk that I'd use the next night and put it in bags in the refrigerator to defrost over the next day. Some of the milk might still be frozen by the time I needed to make bottles, but it'd defrost much faster.
When everything was defrosted, I'd pour the bags into a quart-size mason jar and stir it. A pitcher would probably work better, but I don't have a glass one the right size. As Finn started drinking more, I needed two mason jars, which actually made it easier, as I'd just pour milk between the two jars to mix, and pouring from a half-full jar is much easier than pouring from a full jar.
I used a small funnel to pour the milk into the bottles. If I had extra milk from the previous day, I'd mark the bottle either with the ring color or with a rubber band around the bottle. It'd remind me which to use first, since the recommendation is to use milk within 24 hours of defrosting (I got to be a fair bit more lenient with that rule as Finn got older).
We use Gerber First Essentials bottles. They're about $4 for three bottles, so it's hard to beat. They have three different color rings, blue, green, and pink. I hate pink, so I always tried to buy the blue or green bottles. I couldn't always find them (for a while, I couldn't find the nine-ounce bottles anywhere!), but I still ended up with a handful of pink caps. I use a different cap each day, so I know which bottle to use first if we have any milk from the previous day.
Always try to use the oldest milk first, unless you have a very young baby and happen to have colostrum and/or very early milk available. The dietician we talked with recommended matching the milk to the age of the baby as much as possible when he was small, and at that point, we didn't have any milk that was near the six month mark, so it didn't matter. Another exception is if you have fresh milk. In that case, use the fresh first--breastmilk loses a little bit of its extra awesome benefits in freezing, so you might as well take advantage of the fresh stuff.
As to the age of the milk, I got pretty relaxed about it as time went on. Finn has had milk 14 or so months old, and he had no issues with it. One LC suggested that if Finn doesn't refuse it, it's probably fine. I'm down with that.
I had a few bags from one of our donors that were marked from when her son had a stomach bug. I used that milk when Finn had a stomach bug--I loved being able to give him that perk!
If you have the opportunity to make any suggestions to your donors, request they freeze the milk flat. It stores more compactly, which is nice for them until you're able to pick it up, and it defrosts faster. Request they always mark the bags with the date pumped and the amount in the bag (as measured from the bottle, which is more accurate than the bags, which I found to never be accurate). Offer to buy the bags, and if you can choose which ones are used, I found Lansinoh bags to leak most often, and Target bags to leak the least often. There is one other brand that I really liked, but I can't remember the name. If I find it, I'll update.
*I buy Aldi brand freezer bags. They're a little thicker, so they're less likely to rip. They're also cheap.
**Also Aldi brand freezer bags, but the quart size. Sandwich bags are not big enough.