After Elizabeth Peszat’s newborn took his last breath in the neonatal intensive care unit, her breasts swelled with milk despite her grief.
She remembers going into another room to pump and weeping as the bottle filled, knowing the milk was no longer for her 7-week-old Phil. Instead, it would go to other babies struggling to survive. Peszat continued to pump for another week and donated that milk, as well as a freezer full of 4-ounce bottles she’d been saving for the son who never came home.
“It was still, in a way, comforting that other babies could use the milk even though Phil couldn’t have it anymore,” said 32-year-old Peszat of Hawthorn Woods, tearing up as she recalled the Feb. 5, 2013, death of her firstborn.
Lactation after infant loss has historically been a taboo subject in the halls of many hospitals. Medical professionals for so long had little guidance on how to approach that moment when milk comes in as a mother mourns her stillborn, or the pain in continuing to pump when there’s no longer a baby to feed. But hospitals in recent years have been folding more lactation support into counseling for bereaved mothers, helping to ease postpartum mourning and adding to the coffers of milk banks around the country.
Thirty-four bereaved mothers donated milk in this part of the Midwest last year, compared to two in 2006, according to the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank, which was established in 2005 and covers Illinois and four other states.
Some grieving moms like Peszat say they find comfort in donating their milk, for it extends their ability to mother after their baby is gone.
A few days after baby Phil died, Gladys Garcia Limmo of Des Plaines was rushed to the same hospital and gave birth to twin boys at 23 weeks and four days. Elijah James lived only about six hours, dying after an emergency baptism.
But Levi John, weighing just over a pound, was nourished by breast milk from a feeding tube and grew stronger in the neonatal intensive care unit at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge. Some of that milk, identified only by numbers on the bottles, came from Peszat.
Levi John turned 1 Saturday. He weighs more than 15 pounds.
Limmo, 38, believes the donor milk helped her baby persevere.
“I am so thankful for the one who gave the milk,” she said.
‘A way of bonding’
Peszat and her husband, Phil, met as counselors at a youth camp in Lake Geneva, Wis., and married about five years ago.
“This was definitely the person I wanted to mother my child,” Phil Peszat remembers thinking as they dated.
Baby Phil was born Dec. 19, 2012, at 23 weeks and five days’ gestation.
At 1 pound, 7 ounces, he had an arm thinner than his mother’s pinkie. His hair was a striking shade of strawberry blond. Relatives said he had his mom’s chin.
Peszat said her first drops of milk brought her joy. She triumphantly brought a bit of thick colostrum to the hospital, to be fed to baby Phil through a nasal tube.
She remembers the nurses cheered. Breast milk is considered the perfect blend of water and fat and protein and carbohydrates, laced with the antibodies of the mother, in a recipe that mysteriously alters based on the needs of the baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2012 stated unequivocally that all preterm infants should receive only breast milk, either from the mother or pasteurized donor milk.
Baby Phil was so tiny that Peszat couldn’t nurse or play with him or take him for a walk. Pumping milk was one of the few ways she could mother.
“It was indirectly a way of bonding, just knowing I was doing it for him,” she said.
Baby Phil held on for seven weeks until he died of necrotizing enterocolitis, an inflammation of the intestines that mostly afflicts preterm babies.
Jessica Welborn examined the experiences of 21 mothers who donated milk after infant loss for her doctorate in perinatal psychology at Santa Barbara Graduate Institute. She is now co-director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Montana.
Welborn found milk donation helped many bereaved moms heal.
According to a quote Welborn included in her study, one mother told her, “It would be the worst thing, throwing it away, because it would be like throwing a part of Jeremiah away and he had done so much for so many people.”
“It gave me a certain measure of peace knowing he would carry on in that way,” another mother told her, according to the study. “He served a purpose in coming here and that was just one of the ways he affected life on this planet.”
Peszat said she was almost afraid to stop lactating because it would mean her son was truly gone. But part of her knew she had to move on. She put the pump away in the closet of what would have been baby Phil’s room.
“I had already said goodbye, but this was another ending,” she said.
A new baby
Carol McMurrich said her first drops of milk brought her pain and confusion.
Her daughter Charlotte Amelia died of a compressed umbilical cord during labor in 2003 in western Massachusetts.
McMurrich, now 37, said she hadn’t thought to ask what she should do when she began lactating. The doctors and nurses hadn’t thought to tell her.
“That was the hardest part for me, when my milk came in,” she said. “It was the most traumatic. This was the thing that I could not cope with.”
She said she was instructed to bind her breasts and avoid expression, and she became engorged and leaked. The antiquated suppression technique pained her body as well as her heart.
She went on to found Empty Arms Bereavement Support in western Massachusetts and helped craft a pamphlet called “Lactation After Loss,” which is circulated in various hospitals nationwide. She doesn’t know if she would have chosen to keep making milk to donate, but wishes she’d been given the option.
“Ten years ago, there weren’t as many milk banks, people weren’t encouraged to donate,” said Carissa Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank, referring to bereavement donations.
That’s changing as more medical professionals discuss milk suppression and donation after infant loss.
“Sometimes you struggle to find the words, but it does feel like parents are comforted by your presence,” said Summer Kelly, a nurse and lactation educator who started the donor milk program at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge. “You don’t want them to go home, throw out the milk and then later learn that there was an option to donate it and have regrets.”
Donor milk seemed a bit unorthodox at first to Limmo. She and her husband, Joe, had longed to have children for years and finally had the twins after their second round of in vitro fertilization. She tried to pump to feed Levi John, but was only able to make a little milk, not nearly enough to nourish him.
Limmo, a nurse and Filipino immigrant, remembers that relatives back home would breast feed one another’s babies when a mother had to be separated from her infant. While feeding her child the milk of a stranger initially seemed odd, she was so grateful because she believed it would help her son’s chances.
“And he survived,” Limmo said.
As for Peszat, she recently pulled her breast pump from the nursery closet. She touched the plastic tubing and flanges that were such an intimate part of her life a year ago.
She was getting the pump ready. She’ll be using it again soon.
Peszat gave birth to a boy Wednesday, after a pregnancy full of extra doctor visits, lengthy bed rest and much anxiety. Her son was born a healthy 7 pounds, 6 ounces at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington. His hair was a familiar shade of strawberry blond.
The Peszats named him Philip Ryder.
“He’s already latched on a few times,” Peszat said after nursing him. “He’s a rock star.”