So it’s one thing to hear breastfeeding moms crow about how well breastmilk worked to clear up a baby’s red eye, but another to experience squirting oneself in the eye with fresh breastmilk.
First of all, it is painless. Soothing, even, if the eye is already irritated (and if it’s not, why bother?). Breastmilk is the exact balance an eye wants, and doesn’t create any sort of “foreign body” reaction. Mechanically, it washes the eye. But it also, fresh, contains leukocytes which directly fight infection. It contains sugars and nutrients which inflamed cells can use to help repair and function instantly. And it contains stem cells, which helps it repair damage directly. It blurs the vision for a few minutes, because it is not transparent, but it clears quickly, the inflammation settles down, and the pain goes.
But that’s just the beginning. When I burned my arm badly, I annointed the burn with breastmilk. The pain fled. Healing was rapid. Scarring minimal. I love hydrocolloids for burns but I’d rather apply breastmilk. My housemate gasped when a bad, fresh grease burn vanished in minutes with a few drops of milk on it. To the point where a year or two later, when a couple injuries happened at once, plus an old skin inflammation that had been failing to heal for months… I offered to find someone to donate a small amount of fresh milk, and the offer was accepted, strange as it sounded.
But it didn’t sound strange to my community of moms… my request was answered by five volunteers within half an hour. A few hours later we had a small jar of milk fresh in hand, and shortly after that healing had already begun, wounds that had been frustratingly difficult to heal for months had started to close. “More please?” was the request the next day. And another mom offered another half ounce. Not enough to deprive a baby, but such a tiny amount of precious liquid to heal a long hurt.
A couple years ago, I foolishly tried to clean an immersion blender and nearly chopped the tip of my finger off. It was cut to the bone, white, gaping. Direct pressure and breastmilk started helping quickly. By the time the EMTs arrived, it was holding together enough that I didn’t have to go in, by their judgement. The tip of my finger was dead white, and I annointed my finger with milk along the wound, visualized blood and lymph and nerves flowing, healing, functioning. I watched the tip of my finger pink up. They say that people with fibro have more nerve connections than they should, with more connections specifically to blood vessels and that the nerves do more than they’re supposed to. In any event, if I have poor blood flow in my skin, and someone points it out (a white splotch despite massage, for example), the moment they point it out it will pink up. It causes pain, it causes fibro, it causes reynauds… but it also might just have saved my fingertip. I kept applying milk. I kept visualizing. It kept pinking up whenever I thought about it. I thought about my finger for months (couldn’t help it, the nerves felt buzzy everywhere downstream from where they’d been cut.)
Two years later, and I’m still a little buzzy but blood flow and function are perfect. Barely a scar is visible. I wonder if it is because the wound was bathed in stem cells every time I thought to put a drop on it. There was a V-shaped flap. Even that healed. There was no infection.
On my birthday in 2014, I turned 42 and my son fell against a crate and split his lip. It was bad. And bleeding. And I nursed him immediately, and by the time he stopped, the bleeding had stopped, and the wound looked ten times better than when we’d started. He has a scar there, a small one, but milk and nursing saved him a trip to Urgent Care, and healed him fast.
My mother skeptically agreed to try it with one infection, and came asking for it the next time one struck.
The magic of breastmilk is transitory. Even refrigeration can inhibit the best parts of it.
But I think about how a drop of fresh milk could make a new burn vanish (milk was applied within minutes of the grease landing on the arm), and I think about how many gallons of fresh breastmilk a breastfed baby will consume… And yeah, I’m pretty sure formula will never do that.
People ask me why I don’t call formula a second choice, but a fourth choice. And it really comes down to the fact that fresh breast milk is a magic thing. And if it’s not possible, frozen or fridged from the baby’s mama is very good. If that can’t be had, donor milk is very beneficial and has helped many, many babies. (In my community, there are babies who have only ever had breastmilk despite their mothers having had mastectomies or severe blood loss that inhibited milk production). And if those things don’t work for a family, it’s a very good thing that formula is widely available, but it’s still the fourth choice. This is NOT a slam on formula feeding. This is not a criticism of people who can’t breastfeed or don’t feel comfortable taking donor milk. It’s a reality check. The “ideal” is not always possible in parenting, but we really ought to have a realistic knowledge of what the options are before we determine what the best fit is. It would be ideal for me to take my gregarious kid to social gatherings every day. With my chronic pain and fatigue issues, that’s not happening right now. But I’m not going to pretend that our routine is my “first choice”. My first preference would be to get up cheerfully in the morning, get Shiny off to school, go do something fun and educational with Miles with other children, come home, fix a nutritious lunch, do something productive and creative, and then make a fantastic dinner. But I haven’t gotten Shiny to the bus in four months because of an injury. Other people do it. Thank god they’re there to pick up the slack.
I don’t have milk anymore. When I had the embolism last year, I went on coumadin, and my levels jumped up and down on a daily basis because my special snowflake metabolism wouldn’t know consistent liver function from a sparkly unicorn. After shooting from 1.3 to 3.6 and ending up in the ER pissing blood for no good reason whatsoever, I asked to go on Xarelto… and put Miles on short shifts at the boob because the medicine does appear get into the milk, and being orally absorbed, may cause anticoagulation in a child. Not ideal in an active toddler. I dried up quickly. He still nurses now and then, despite saying he was done every day for six days, on the seventh, he lost his shit and begged for boob and I shrugged and let him nurse for 2 minutes and he was fine. Like magic. Even without milk.
So if I was being granular about it, I’d rank my own “preference/ideal” scale for infant feeding (<6 months) thusly:
Fresh mama’s milk at the breast
Fresh mama’s milk in a bottle or SNS (note that logistically this can be the single most draining approach to new baby parenting.)
Fridged mama’s milk
Frozen mama’s milk
Fresh donor milk (assuming a safe donor, which is an assumption that should not be made casually)
Fridged donor milk
Frozen donor milk
Pasteurized donor milk (personally, I react badly to cooked milk from cows. I can drink fresh raw milk or fridged raw milk or cooked-then-cultured milk without issues. It’s an enzyme thing. So feeding babies exclusively pasteurized milk, even human milk, isn’t high on my personal list of preferences, though it may have less risk of infection, it also does much less than fresh milk to help prevent infection and illness. But compared to formula, still gold.)
Cow-milk based formula (and here I’d rather have organic)
Cow-milk based whey hydrolysate formula (i.e. Good Start)
Cow-milk based full hydrolysate hypoallergenic formula (i.e. alimentum etc.)
When people say, “every drop is precious”… yes. Even if a mom only produces an ounce a day for her baby to drink, and the rest comes from something else, think about the magic that even that ounce can do. One drop to heal a small burn. 1/2 ounce to heal a couple of injuries and start healing on several more.
There’s a reason why it was worth it to me, when Shiny was still new, to weigh her, nurse her, weigh her, pump until I got to our “goal” and then feed that pumped milk immediately by bottle. The more of my relative-to-her normal stem cells that colonized in her gut, the better off she would be. I wish I’d bathed her in breastmilk, head to toe, though certainly I leaked enough in the early days that essentially, I did.
Entertainingly, scientists managed to create a rat forelimb using a collagen scaffold and seeded cells recently. It is remotely possible that one day we will have disembodied mammary glands that produce a reasonable facsimile of some of the biodynamic parts of breastmilk for feeding babies who can’t nurse. Add formula to the thing, have it convert that into something more alive.
And it will probably still be a distant second, third, or fourth to a mother’s own milk, to fresh milk from a donor. Because we still don’t fully understand the complexity that is human breastmilk. It’s possible we never quite will. Sometimes it seems that the more we learn, the more we learn that there is still to learn. What we know now is just one drop in the bucket.