Nova Scotia

How this N.S. mom's struggles with breastfeeding inspired her to help others

A surgeon from Halifax has opened up about her breastfeeding journey and connected with many other moms who feel the same way but don't often talk about it.

Kiersten Rajaraman donated nearly 48 litres of breast milk to newborns in need

Kiersten Rajaraman, an ear, nose, throat surgeon from Halifax, says she wasn't prepared for the challenges of breastfeeding her newborn. (Kiersten Rajaraman)

New mom Kiersten Rajaraman prepared for the pain of labour and for the sleepless nights to follow, but she never expected breastfeeding to be so hard. 

"I remember just crying at 3:30 in the morning because it's like, what am I doing wrong?" the surgeon from Halifax, N.S., said. "I remember having a roadmap for labour and there is no roadmap for breastfeeding."

After four frustrating months, and many conversations with lactation consultants, Rajaraman's daughter still refused to feed at the breast. She knew her baby was getting the nutrition she needed from the bottle so she began pumping exclusively.

"Our freezer quickly became like, I'm not joking, it was breast milk and one bag of frozen berries," she said. 

Even as Rajaraman began pumping less, she realized she was producing far more milk than her daughter would ever need. So last week, she packed up the "liquid gold" and shipped nearly 48 litres of it halfway across the country to help feed babies in need.

Rajaraman shipped a cooler full of her milk to Canada's only community-based milk bank in Calgary. (Kiersten Rajaraman)

Because the IWK Health Centre in Halifax doesn't have a milk bank like hospitals in Vancouver and Toronto, it relies on donations of human milk from Canada's only community-based milk bank in Calgary. 

Rajaraman said it's a complicated process to donate breast milk if you live anywhere on the East Coast, but she said it's worth it to help some of the province's tiniest and most vulnerable patients.

Donor milk is pooled, pasteurized and tested for safety at NorthernStar Milk Bank in Calgary, then distributed to 31 hospitals across the country, including the IWK .

It's reserved for babies in neonatal intensive care units who need it the most. 

Daughter benefited from donor milk

Rajaraman's daughter, who is now six months old, spent the first week of her life in neonatal intensive care.

Because she was born a bit early and dealing with health issues, Rajaraman and her husband opted to feed her donor milk at first.

Now Rajaraman said it's her turn to give back. 

Hear Kiersten Rajaraman share her story with CBC Radio's Mainstreet:

"I was blessed, and I do say blessed, because I know ... that a lot of people struggle on the opposite spectrum, like they just can't get their milk to come in or they just can't get enough milk," she said. 

"This is a significant amount of milk that I would never want to waste."

Last fall, Rajaraman contacted NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank and began the process to become a donor, which includes screening questions, blood work and getting a doctor to sign off. The charity reimburses donor expenses for shipping the milk.

NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank receives donations from across Canada, and then distributes it to hospitals, as well as families in the community. (NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank)

Jannette Festival, the non-profit's co-founder and executive director, said it's a lot of work and not for everyone, but those who are able to donate "are all helping save a baby."

The charity usually has between 600-800 donors, but has recently seen a drop in the number of donors from the East Coast, Festival said.

A need for more donors

Last year, there were six donors in total from this region, including five from Nova Scotia. That's down from 2020 when there were 10 donors from Nova Scotia and six from New Brunswick.

Festival said that means last year, about one per cent of the charity's donors were from the East Coast, while hospitals here accepted 11 per cent of the total donations — with the IWK receiving eight per cent.

"We would like to see a few more people donate, just to even it out," Festival said, adding that the charity can handle about double the volume of donor milk it's currently receiving. 

Pasteurized donor milk is safe for babies in the NICU to use and provides a range of benefits as they get stronger, says a lactation consultation at the IWK. (NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank)

Meanwhile, the IWK has no plans to open its own milk bank.

A spokesperson for the hospital said in an email that "the most feasible and sustainable option to provide pasteurized human milk for IWK patients continues to be purchasing from an established milk bank."

Michelle Higgins, a clinical dietitian in the IWK's NICU, said donor milk, which arrives at the hospital frozen and is stored in a secure locker, is very beneficial for babies who are born early, are very small, or have gut issues. 

"I think there's certainly more and more hospitals using donor milk, at least in the NICU population just as the body of literature grows and more and more evidence is there to support the use," she said. 

Families often have many questions about whether the milk is safe and where it comes from, and IWK staff say there's a clear consent process before a newborn receives donor milk.

The number of people donating breast milk from the East Coast is declining, says the co-founder of NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank. (NorthernStar Mothers Milk Bank)

Rajaraman recently posted on Facebook about the struggles she faced breastfeeding her daughter, and why that inspired her to become a donor. 

Before long she was receiving messages from strangers and friends she hadn't spoken with in years, all of them sharing their own stories.

The challenges they faced were all unique, said Rajaraman, but it's clear that many felt unprepared to deal with the hurdles, and were eager for more education.

"It seemed to me that they were just looking for an outlet to kind of share their own struggles and have a sense that someone else is going through the same thing," she said.