Breast milk donation and bereavement
The decision about whether to donate breast milk after the death of an infant can be a challenging one for a mother to make. George F Winter explores this as a method for healing
According to the Office of National Statistics (2019), 2 636 infant deaths (aged under one year) occurred in England and Wales in 2017, and one can assume that almost all of these cases were accompanied by overwhelming parental and extended family grief. In a Spanish study of parents who had experienced gestational loss, Martínez-Serrano et al (2019) found that parents failed to recognise their loss and parenthood; that the midwife was the highest valued professional; and that parents ‘referred to in-hospital logistic barriers that complicated the process, as well as the fact that these births occurred in the same place where healthy deliveries were attended’.
How might a grieving mother be helped to address some of the stressful challenges that accompany an infant death? Hospital-based lactation consultants Britz and Henry (2013) acknowledge that when perinatal or neonatal loss is anticipated, breast milk is seldom considered in the care plan. The authors point out that they have been challenged by well-intentioned colleagues who do not support the use of breast milk for infants who are likely to die. Nevertheless, Britz and Henry (2013) argue that ‘in many of these cases, the use of breast milk can be a wonderful experience for the mother and her infant. By creating a sense of normalcy in tumultuous times, the use of breast milk can contribute to creating positive memories’. They note that grieving mothers may experience unexpected breast changes that accompany lactogenesis and suggest that mothers should be given an informed choice in relation to lactation – apart from suppression – like breast milk donation, citing the case of an infant in the neonatal intensive care unit whose mother derived physical and emotional comfort by giving her son a little breast milk before he died.
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