They Call Me Mommy Series - Elisabeth Anderson-Sierra
Elisabeth is a wife, mom of two girls (ages 2 and 4), a veteran, an EMT, a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC), and founder of One Ounce At A Time. She’s also a breastmilk donor like no other. With courage, compassion, and persistence, she has found a way to make the most of a rare medical condition that dramatically changed life for her, her family, and countless babies in need.
What she told us: “Our worth as mothers is not measured in ounces. It's not even measured in milliliters or drops. Our worth is not measured in the amount of milk we produce. Do what you can and be very proud of your journey.”
Elisabeth’ story: Elisabeth had a very busy life after retiring from the military. She and her husband were both adjusting to life back in the civilian world. Her husband had a new job and Elisabeth was in school full time studying to become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Money was very tight and the pair was doing everything they could to make things work.
Before pregnancy, Elisabeth was a regular blood donor. She had to stop when she became pregnant but she missed giving back to the community. She was hopeful breastmilk donation* might become an option and researched it extensively. “This was before knowing whether my body would even produce milk, so it was more wishful thinking than anything – I just hoped I could be involved in something like that.”
Elisabeth was the first among her friends to get pregnant, so she didn’t have a lot of people to consult when her breasts began leaking at about 6 months. She asked her doctor about it and was told it could be normal. By 8 months, she was leaking so much, she had to use a hand pump to relieve the discomfort. But when she told her doctor she’d pumped 12 ounces in a day, they assumed she’d meant 12 milliliters and just reminded her to be careful not to induce labor with pumping.
“My breast tissue developed rapidly. I would start leaking and soaking my shirt. I didn't know about breast pads at the time, so I was literally stuffing washcloths and paper towels and napkins and socks and anything into my bra to soak up the milk. It was really embarrassing for me. I didn't know what my body was doing, I didn't know how to handle it, and I didn't feel like I could tell my doctor because I wasn't being listened to. They were like, ‘No, you can't be leaking that much.’ But I got to the point where I was soaking through 24 washcloths a day.”
It wasn’t until her daughter was about 6 months old that Elisabeth was diagnosed with Hyperlactation Syndrome. She took her pump to the doctor’s office to demonstrate just how much milk she was producing and how quickly it was replenishing. They finally understood what she was dealing with.
Hyperlactation Syndrome is a very rare condition. In Elisabeth’s case, it is caused by dramatically elevated prolactin levels (prolactin is the hormone that stimulates breastmilk production). Although breastfeeding is usually regulated by supply and demand, ensuring the body produces only as much milk as baby needs, these rules don’t apply for Elisabeth. “My body creates the milk regardless of how much I breast pump or nurse... my refill rate is ridiculous, so while pumping, I can feel the breast tissue making milk. It is the weirdest feeling in the world. I can feel the milk moving forward in the glands.”
While many women struggle with supply and might think this is an enviable situation, this condition comes with plenty of challenges and has profoundly altered Elisabeth’s life. As an infant, Elisabeth’s daughter suffered from reflux and diarrhea even though she was only getting breastmilk. It took some time to realize that, because of the quantity of milk Elisabeth was producing for each feeding session, her daughter was only getting foremilk and missing out on the high-fat hindmilk that provides critical nutrients.
To deal with this, Elisabeth had to breast pump for 20 minutes before trying to feed her daughter: “I would pump until I could get as empty as I possibly could, and then I could nurse her. That was really hard, though, because a newborn baby can want to feed at any time. They’re hungry when they’re hungry, so trying to anticipate that and getting that pump session in before she got fussy was my constant nightmare.”
Once Elisabeth’s Hyperlactation Syndrome had been identified and diagnosed, she was encouraged to take a prolactin blocker to stop her milk production. Instead, she looked for ways to donate her excess breastmilk, and has been donating for five years now. Her oldest daughter is now 4, and she had a second daughter who is now 2. The girls are still Elisabeth’s #1 recipients of breastmilk, but she has also provided over 250,000 ounces of breastmilk for babies all over the country.
“You can't have favorites with your milk donation children - but I definitely have a favorite story. I donated to a baby in Puerto Rico. He was born right after Hurricane Maria and his mother died in childbirth. He wasn’t well, couldn’t tolerate formula, and they couldn’t find donors on the island because the power was out everywhere – no one could pump. A family member told me about him and I got him through an entire year on breastmilk. I've never met him, but one day I will and I’ll probably burst into tears the second I meet him!”
The bottom line: “I’m not invincible. I’m a real mom, and even if I’m not relatable on a supply level, I’m a real mom and I’ve had real breastfeeding struggles. This has been life changing for me and debilitating and incapacitating. But I’m proud of how I’ve handled my medical condition and I know I've done something to further humanity. I've left my small mark on the world.”
Elisabeth’s breastfeeding tricks of the trade:
- Flanges are not one-size-fits all: It’s really important to use properly fitted flanges.
- Spare parts: Have enough sets of breast pump parts for your whole day, plus an emergency set. Then you can set time aside in your day where you can wash all of them at once (or get your partner to help!).
- Cookie sheets aren’t just for baking: To freeze your bags flat, lay them out on a cookie sheet and place another one on top to flatten them out. Put it in the freezer and once they’re frozen, you can remove the sheets and stack the bags to save space.
- Breast Pumping should be hands on: Use a hands-free breast pumping bra so you can massage your breasts while you’re pumping. It will increase yield, and will help remove the hindmilk a little better.
- Get to know your girls: People talk about belly mapping when you’re pregnant and I think breast tissue mapping is also important. Learn where the milk ducts are – figure out which produce the most milk and which are most troublesome. Massage the slacker tissue - more stimulation can help create more breastmilk.
*If you are interested in learning more about breastmilk donation, connect with your local milk bank. We recommend working only with those certified by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), which follow strict screening, processing, and dispensing guidelines to ensure milk safety. Visit www.HMBANA.org.